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Juvenile injustice

  • 22 February 2022
A few weeks ago I was drawn to the final item of The Weekend Australian’s editorial column, a section I have been known to pass over. Under the heading, ‘Hurt boy’s inhuman treatment’, was set out the details of a 15-year-old West Australian boy who had been ‘locked alone in a glass-walled observation cell of a juvenile detention centre in the southern suburbs of Perth for 79 days.’

Having previously spent time as lawyer working predominantly in the Children’s Court of Victoria, there isn’t too much about the State’s treatment of young people that shocks me. Even so, this was hard to believe, hard to bear the thought of. It’s been sitting with me since. The boy did not leave his cell at all for 33 of the 79 days he was in solitary confinement at Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre. The confinement itself was found by the Perth Children’s Court President, Hylton Quail, to have been unjustly punitive and was without any rehabilitating effect.

The incarcerated adolescent, an Indigenous Australian, has been a ward of the state since the age of seven, so in some legal sense it was his own parent who locked him up in such deplorable circumstances. That he plead to assaulting guards 19 times while jailed surely says more about systems of state ‘care’ and ‘justice’ for our marginalised young than about the character of this young person.

Reporting of the assaults reminded me of a piece about a ‘Youth Justice Centre’ on the other side of the country. Over Christmas I mulled a report that the Victorian Minister for Youth Justice, Natalie Hutchins, could not guarantee an end to assaults on staff and young people at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre. The Centre was described as ‘troubled’, which is what might be expected of a facility that locks-up increasing numbers of adolescents and young men, where there have been over 628 police callouts for alleged assaults since 2016.

This culture of violence was related in an ABC report in late December, with a former employee of the facilitating asserting that the violence had increased as Malmsbury moved to a ‘high-security environment’. Another said the possibility of rehabilitation for those incarcerated was impossible in an environment of ongoing assault. An environment where, as the Victorian Auditor General’s office has found, young people are routinely ‘locked down’ in their cells so that an understaffed workforce can take breaks.

'In the face