SYDNEY: The detention of indigenous children has become a national crisis in Australia, Amnesty International said on Tuesday, and demanded the government do more to stem what it termed a spiraling epidemic.
A new Amnesty report, A Brighter Tomorrow, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 26 times more likely to be jailed than their non-indigenous counterparts.
It also noted that while indigenous 10-to-17 year olds account for just five percent of the Australian population, they comprise 59 percent of those in prison in that age range.
“What’s more, this over-representation is getting worse,” Amnesty secretary-general Salil Shetty told the National Press Club in Canberra, pointing to data from 2011 that showed indigenous youths were 21 times more likely to be jailed.
The report highlighted inconsistencies and gaps between states and territories in collecting data about the youth justice system, which it said was a barrier to allowing a fuller response to the issue.
“That state and federal governments are not even keeping or sharing proper records on this detention is a scandal,” said Shetty.
The report recommended new laws to ensure children are only locked up while awaiting criminal trial in extreme cases, that they receive more legal assistance and that those under 17 are jailed only as a last resort.
It also urged Australia to adopt nationally a program known as Justice Reinvestment, currently in a trial phase in the remote town of Bourke, in which police, Aboriginal organizations and government departments work together to provide alternatives to jail.
“Sadly, once these children have been locked up with limited opportunities for rehabilitation… the likelihood is they will spend the rest of their lives caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” said Shetty.
“Australia has a long and tragic history of removing indigenous children from their families and communities. We will see another generation lost to failed government policies unless Australian governments get smarter about this and fast.”
Aborigines have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years and are the nation’s most disadvantaged, with a much shorter life expectancy than other Australians while suffering disproportionate levels of imprisonment and social problems such as unemployment.
They are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement in 1788, but there are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 23 million.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said the over representation of indigenous children in jail “has reached epidemic proportions”.
“This is a national emergency. This must change, urgently,” he said in a foreword to the Amnesty report, partly blaming the ongoing legacy of colonization, systemic social and economic disadvantages and racism for the growing problem.
“We need an approach that starts to address the underlying causes of crime and starts to divert resources away from imprisonment and into local communities,” he added.
Gooda admitted there was no silver bullet solution but said early intervention and better community responses were crucial.