Australia's Aboriginal children detained at the world's highest rates

Gerry Georgatos The Stringer 2 May 2013

In the United States, the Annie Casey Foundation's report 'No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration,' has an assembly of juvenile crime statistics that evidence why locking up children does not work. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rates of adults and children than any other nation.

The United States has a prison population that approaches nearly one per cent its total adult population, no other nation comes close. It incarcerates juveniles at horrific rates. More than 2.3 million adults are in prisons and with at least 3 per cent of the total population in contact with the criminal justice system, for instance parolees. Are Americans really this bad or is it that America, the great meritocracy, is harsh, and even cruel, on its poor? Do these statistics bear witness to a criminal justice system that is not working and to a prison system that is sick?

End of 2009, 743 per 100,000 American adults were incarcerated. Additionally, nearly 5 million adults were on parole. Therefore nearly seven and a half million American adults were before the criminal justice system - in fact 3.1 per cent of all American residents.

In Australia, juvenile detention rates are nowhere near as high as the United States but they have increased to such an extent that alarm bells are going off with many rights advocates and also with many who work within the realm of the criminal justice system. There is a call for a re-evaluation of sentencing regimes, a call for the implementation of restorative justice practices and for the underlying reasons that lead to juveniles being detained to be identified and hence addressed.

In Western Australia, juvenile detention has led to a state of crisis with the Banksia Hill riot. Banksia Hill detention centre is the State's only juvenile detention centre, with children from ages 10 to 17 piled in. Due to the property and site damage to the detention centre, the children were transferred to two segregated units of a nearby adult prison, Hakea. Children in an adult prison garnered national attention when Children Commissioners, lawyers and the President of the Western Australian Children's Court criticised the relocating of children to an adult jurisdiction.

All of a sudden what has been for most Australians out of sight and therefore out of mind dawned on the nation's consciousness - juvenile detention.

Many questions are now finding their way into the national consciousness and onto the Australian political landscape. Does juvenile detention work? Do adult prisons work? Why are so many Aboriginal children being detained?

Western Australia's juvenile detention rates are the highest in the nation.

And Aboriginal children bear the predominant burden. In comparison to non-Aboriginal children they are disproportionately locked up and at rates that beggar belief. Former Western Australian Inspector of Custodial Services, Professor Richard Harding recently described Western Australia as the 'State of Imprisonment.' But what needs to be highlighted are the horrifically high rates of Aboriginal imprisonment in Western Australia - the world's worst for a particular peoples, worse than the last years of Apartheid South Africa for its black peoples.

In a research piece which I also published as a feature article about the Northern Territory Intervention, where I interviewed more than 100 Aboriginal Elders I titled it, "People are not the property of people - The Northern Territory is a prison built brick by brick by the Commonwealth." 84 per cent of the Northern Territory prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples but in terms of proportion to population Western Australia beats the Northern Territory. If the Northern Territory is a prison hence so is Western Australia, but let us be clear it is mostly a State of Imprisonment for Aboriginal peoples. Most non-Aboriginal families will not have a member of their family imprisoned but just about every Aboriginal family endures this as a reality.

Although the United States boasts the world's highest imprisonment rates and Australia comes nowhere near American rates of detention Australia's record is not pretty, not when we break it down to Aboriginal peoples and especially to Aboriginal children. Australia's Aboriginal peoples are the world's most imprisoned peoples - adults and children. Former Governor of Western Australia, General John Sanderson once said that in most countries such incarceration rates of any minority population would have led to either civil strife or to a civil war.

The Annie Casey Foundation report is important because it notes despite the United States high rates of juvenile detention that indeed, unlike Australia, in many of their States the juvenile detention population has been decreasing. Many jurisdictions have moved towards various reformative practices including restorative justice, community programs instead of 'prison' sentencing and to problem solving courts where victims, perpetrators and community elders are brought together.

The report was released in October 2011 and noted an emerging trend in which 18 States had closed more than 50 juvenile corrections facilities during the preceding four years. The report found that wholesale incarceration was a failed strategy and that indeed it was becoming unaffordable.

The report found that within three years of release, 72 per cent of the youth were convicted for re-offending. More importantly, the report found that from 1997 to 2007, in the States which had engaged reformative practices and worked much more closely with their troubled youth rather than locking them up, that they not only reduced juvenile detention numbers but also "saw a greater decline in juvenile violent crime arrests than States which increased incarceration rates or reduced them more slowly."

Now that it has emerged that the United States cannot continue to afford to keep jailing children the alternative is to try to ensure they do not offend or re-offend and work with them in humane ways rather than the brutalising force of locking them up and calling it detention.

Will Australia likewise wait till juvenile detention becomes as unaffordable as it has in the United States or will it act now as is it is weakly indicating?

Juvenile detention is not easy pickings or a hotel like stay for our youth. It is a prelude to adult prison. The Annie Casey Foundation report found that from 2000 to 2010, one in eight confined youth reported being sexually abused by either staff or other youth.

Banksia Hill Detention Centre - Western Australia

In 2010, the United States incarcerated 60,500 of its young. "Young people of colour" were disproportionately represented. Australia's Aboriginal youth tragically outstrips the American culturally demographical incarceration rates. Why?

Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie Casey Foundation, and a former director of Alternatives to Incarceration for New York State, said in October, 2011, "This report highlights the crucial challenges facing the youth corrections field. Our hope is that the research will serve as a catalyst for developing more effective and efficient juvenile justice strategies."

Juvenile arrest rates per 100,000 youth for violent index offences in the United States, 1997 to 2007, were 412 per 100,000 in 1997 but had been reduced to 301 per 100,000 in 2007. That is a reduction of 26.9 per cent.

In the States with more large scale investment on prevention and reformative problem solving practices the reduction of juveniles being locked up and of serious re-offending has been profound. In Arizona the reduction in the ten year period has been 47.9 per cent, in Alaska 51.8 per cent, in Arkansas 49 per cent, in Connecticut 44.2 per cent, in Indiana 57.4 per cent, in Kentucky 54.4 per cent, in Maine 52 per cent, in Mississippi 51.2 per cent, in Ohio 59.1 per cent, in South Dakota 58.1 per cent, in Utah 58.9 per cent and in West Virginia 46.8 per cent.

In Rhode Island the reduction is 79 per cent and in New Hampshire 86 per cent.

The total number of juveniles in committed custody in the United States in 1997 was 75,406 but in 2007 this had been reduced to 60,426. Louisiana reduced its juvenile detention population from 2,190 in 1997 to 849 in 2007. Maine reduced its juvenile detention population from 225 in 1997 to 108 in 1997.

The Annie Casey Foundation report argued that even the reducing of the detention population, without extensive reformative measures in place, coincided with a reduction in arrest rates. This indicts the harshness of detaining children, and adults, and that indeed a state of imprisonment brutalises people to such an extent that the situational trauma damages an individual's operations and functions, degenerating them to continuing stress disorders post release and making them vulnerable to re-offending and not forgetting suicide. In the first year post release suicide rates are at least five fold the annual suicide rates in prisons and detention centres in Australia - this is an endemic finding throughout the world's Western nations.

I have often argued - and it is my experience - that people come out of our prisons worse than they went in.

In eleven States that reduced juvenile incarceration by more than 42.5 per cent and up to 60 per cent, and hence with a median average reduction of 50.5 per cent this led to a 43.1 per cent median average reduction from 1997 to 2007 in violent offence arrest rates. This is indicative that the prison experience is not only brutalising and damaging prisoners but that it sends people back into society worse than they went in and therefore vulnerable to being dangerous to others.

Across the 50 States the median change reduction in juvenile confinement from 1997 to 2007 was 20.1 per cent and this led to a 36.5 per cent reduction in juvenile violent offence arrest rates.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011 report on juvenile detention populations found that at the end of June 2011 there were 1,055 young people in detention. The United States had nearly 60 times the number of children committed to confinement at the same time but in terms of proportion to population they were detaining their children at four times the rate of Australia. Australia's Aboriginal children were being detained at higher rates than any particular group of children in the United States, including African-American, Hispanic and their First Nations children.

But despite the United States rates of juvenile incarcerations during the last fifteen years their juvenile detention population has markedly decreased whereas the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports Australia's juvenile detention population has not decreased. The report noted that at the end of the June quarter 2011 Aboriginal youth, aged 10 to 17 years, were "20 times as likely to be in unsentenced detention and 26 times as likely to be in sentenced detention as a non-Indigenous young person."

"This over-representation was highest in Western Australia, where an Indigenous young person aged 10 to 17 was 29 times as likely to be in unsentenced detention and 50 times as likely to be in sentenced detention as a non-Indigenous young person in the June quarter 2011."

It is a fact that 'race' in various countries is associated with acute poverty and therefore complicates national incarceration rates of adults and youth. The underlying problem is not rocket science, it is the poverty. In trying to address poverty by assimilationist policies is not the answer because assimilationist policies in Western nations cry out for meritocracy but for this to arise there are two basic components - a whole of government approach to invest financially in supporting inter-generationally traumatised communities and secondly a wait of at least a couple of generations for a conditions to equal out between the disadvantaged and the non-disadvantaged communities. But effectually neither of this is happening, it has been piecemeal and this too by various worrisome imposts.

The United States may have the world's largest prison population but at long last it is offering a beacon of light and hence the flicker of hope to its own and to the rest of the world with youth incarceration on the decline.

A drop of more than 42 per cent from 1995 to 2010 is huge. The sharpest decline in the youth incarceration rates and in violent offences and in re-offending has actually come in the last five years of that period. In 1995 the United States juvenile detention population was at 107,637 and in 2010 it had dropped to 70,792 and then again in 2011.

The drop however has not been equally distributed among the various racial groups in the United States, with black youth still five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. Hispanics and First Nations youth are up to three times more likely to be incarcerated when compared to white youth. However overall there have been reductions among all the groups. But not in Australia where Aboriginal youth is 26 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal youth, and in Western Australia this discrimination is 50 times. Therefore it is clear that Australia's Aboriginal children are the world's most incarcerated children.

Australia has a racial issue which in the public interest it is fair to state Australia is not addressing. Unlike the United States where the statistics are improving, in Australia the statistics have got worse.

European countries have been working to lower juvenile detention rates. The Scandinavian countries are recording the greatest successes. Norway has enjoyed profound success in reducing prison populations and in markedly reducing re-offending rates with reformative practices and its more communal 0pen-type prisons such as Bastoy. Norway has the lowest re-offending rates in Europe. But England and Wales with harsh penal estates have high juvenile detention rates. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform most of Europe deliberates juvenile offences as welfare issues and works to resolve the issues of troubled youth. Once again Australia's Aboriginal youth are incarcerated at rates that make England's and Wales' rates of juvenile detention meek.

The No Place for Kids report came up with several recommendations.

Change the laws to limit incarceration to those youths who have committed serious offences.

Invest in family focused treatment interventions while they are detention.

There should be an investment into community based services.

Time on remand or as unsentenced must be reduced and access to problem solving courts and Children's Court sped up.

Alternatives to detention centres should be facilitated. In Western Australia there is only one monolithic detention centre for all ages between 10 to 17 years. Alternatives can include treatment based group homes and supervised community group programs.

The report also suggested holding juvenile correction facilities to account by maintaining a database of what happens to youths in their care. This will determine what institutions and programs are working positively and hence which institutions and programs deserve tax payer investment.

Dr Brian Steels is the director of the Asia Pacific Forum for Restorative Justice and he coordinates the Institute for Restorative Justice and Penal Reform in Australia. His work among Aboriginal communities as a researcher and counsellor is well known. He has a special interest in Aboriginal peoples throughout South East Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, China and India. Within Australia his experience in sentencing circles, family conferencing and healing ceremonies is well recognised.

He has said that Western countries where "punishment of the body and soul is paramount" does not work and that it is left up to charities and social workers to do what they can "to keep the family together."

"Mandatory sentencing was brokered in Western Australia against United Nations ideals Australia is party to. Youth and children were seen as out of control or totally uncontrollable. They were made culpable at an early age even where their parents abandoned them," said Dr Steels.

He said a child should not be seen as a commodity but rather as we all should be seen in terms of our humanity.

"We have placed the responsibility on young people who have been let go by their families. Their parents may not be able to cope but we have come down on the children."

"The juvenile penal estate has become a default position for social regulators who don't want their commercial business districts and tourist attractions contaminated by the shadow of this youth."

He said the answer is "to place a large part of the responsibility on positive parenting and on educating young girls and boys to make their lives safe from abuse."

"Within Aboriginal communities we have to continue to empower the women but also to help the men to look after their children rather than either locking up the men too or handing the children over to the State."

"It is a hard call but we have to make it, tempered by support and education. We cannot have young people killing themselves and others in car chases, or creating fear. The families require support to nurture them and to educate them and to be able to evidence to them that there is potential for a real future for them."

He said Australia had to look at its Aboriginal youth and stop blaming them and then punishing them. "Look at the disadvantaged youth of Spain, 50 per cent are unemployed but the crime rate has not spiked."

"Indonesia has ten times the population of Australia and more Indonesians are in abject poverty than the whole of the Australian population but few of their children are removed from the family into either the care of the State or into detention."

Poverty is not a crime. It is a crime that Governments do not help those who they should be helping, our most vulnerable.

He said that it is time families were assisted in ways that they in turn can provide the type of role modelling and nurture that children need.

He said that India has social problems that pale Australia's social ills but neither are the Indians filling their juvenile facilities with their children. "Everyone knows that children need their parents and that the key is parenting, and if we want to address the problems then we have to work with the families and communities."

We should not forget that our prisons are filled with the victims, and the children of the victims, of the Stolen Generations.

Gerry Georgatos is a PhD researcher in Australian Custodial Systems and Australian Deaths in Custody. He is a prison reform advocate who believes that children and adults should not be incarcerated for non-violent offences. He has visited prisons on a number of occasions to inspire the incarcerated to various opportunities pre-release and post-release.