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Maintaining children's rights amid youth detention crises

  • 13 January 2017


Youth detention is an issue that simply will not go away.

In July 2016, Four Corners revealed footage of abuse of young people in the Northern Territory's notorious Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. Despite a defensive response from the Northern Territory government and a sanguine response from the relevant Commonwealth Minister, the Commonwealth nonetheless called a royal commission into youth detention in the Territory.

In the wake of the Don Dale abuse, the public became aware of allegations of abuse of juveniles in detention. The Queensland government responded with its own inquiry.

While Queensland and the Northern Territory have form in youth detention, it was perhaps somewhat more surprising that Victoria — a state with a charter of human rights — experienced its own youth detention issues before Christmas last year.

The crisis in Victorian youth detention arose from riots at Melbourne Youth Justice Centre at Parkville, in November. The disturbance resulted in damage to the facility, which became unsuitable to house the full complement of 'inmates'. In response, the government announced that those responsible for the riots would be moved to Barwon Prison, an adult secure facility.

On the face of it, the reason for the 'temporary' removal is the lack of facilities at Parkville while they are being repaired. However comments by the Premier indicate a punitive element to the plan: 'I don't think you could see a more powerful demonstration of our resolve to keep our staff safe and to keep the community safe than our decision to relocate these offenders who have behaved appallingly to Barwon Prison.'

Among the 40 young people removed to Barwon were Koori youths. In light of the serious problems with incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and their special vulnerability in the prison system, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service challenged the plan to locate the Koori youth in Barwon Prison.

Consequently, a deal was struck with the State. Koori youth would only be transferred to an adult prison in 'exceptional circumstances' and then only with the permission of the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.


"It is certainly a concern to see a Minister for Children and Young People speak in opposition to the exercise of children's human rights."


The remaining non-Indigenous youth were sent to Barwon, but the Fitzroy Legal Service and the Human Rights Law Centre challenged the transfer. The Victorian Supreme Court found that the government had acted unlawfully and the Court of Appeal upheld that