Indigenous Juvenile Detention: Australia’s Neglected Crisis

By Samah Hadid, Chris Varney and Benson Saulo
Photo of black hands behind bars

This article is part of our February theme, which focuses on one of the great silences in the human rights conversation in Australia: Prisoners’ Rights. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

“I’ve been in and out of here since I was 10.”

These are the words of a 17-year-old Indigenous boy locked in a juvenile detention centre in Perth. He was one of ten boys participating in a 2009 United Nations youth representative consultation. Eight of these ten boys were Indigenous. Sadly this overrepresentation of Indigenous children is reflected in juvenile detention facilities nation-wide.

Herein is Australia’s neglected crisis. Data in recent years shows that the overrepresentation has become so extreme that Indigenous girls and boys are 28 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The tragedy in this trend is that the majority of Indigenous children are imprisoned for petty, non-serious crimes. This 17-year-old boy spoke of a childhood of violence, abuse and homelessness. Eventually at age 10 he committed a petty crime out of pure desperation and was imprisoned. Seven years later imprisonment has continued to be viewed as the apparent “solution” to his ongoing deprivation and subsequent repeated offending.

Despite all the adversity he had faced, this boy still had a bright spark about him. However his sense of hope was also marred by his state of limbo: he wanted to change his lifestyle, but lacked any measure of support to be able to do so.

As Australian Youth Representatives to the United Nations, we have heard all too often stories such as this boy’s in our work across Australia. Yet we have also been inspired by the leadership shown by young Indigenous Australians in the community.

We believe that if Australians as a whole show leadership in supporting Indigenous youth, Indigenous youth leadership will continue to thrive.

2011 marked the 20th anniversary of Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This treaty sets out the binding obligations Australia has made to ensure the basic human rights of all its children and adolescents. Under articles 37 and 40, Australia has made itself bound to only arrest, detain or imprison a child as a “measure of last resort” and to promote the availability of alternatives to institutional care.

To its detriment, Australia is failing to meet its obligations under these articles. Indigenous children, more than anyone, are suffering the consequences.

In May 2011, child rights groups published a collaborative report entitled “Listen to Children” which was taken to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in October of the same year. This report captures the voices of imprisoned Indigenous children and through them highlights some of the underlying causes and solutions to the crisis of Indigenous juvenile detention.

In the report, an 18-year-old boy refers to the more punitive measures inflicted by police on Indigenous children: “they don’t treat us the same as they treat other people and it’s unfair on us.” This sentiment is shared by many Indigenous youth around the country and was loudly voiced throughout our national consultations.

“[T]hey don’t treat us the same as they treat other people and it’s unfair on us.”

In youth consultations in 2009 Indigenous girls described police as “vultures, just waiting for us to do something wrong.” Similarly Indigenous children spoke of the overt harassment, targeting and violence they had been subjected to by police. One child put it simply, “out here the police act like God.”

This “over-policing” is also cited by a 2011 House of Representatives’ inquiry entitled “Doing Time – Time for Doing” as an issue affecting “the rate at which Indigenous people come into contact with the criminal justice system.” The inquiry notes that relations between police and Indigenous youth are spoilt by “attitudes of distrust, suspicion and fear.”

Australia must redefine juvenile detention as a “last resort” for children and redirect investment into a child rights-based approach to youth and crime; one which supports early intervention, counselling and mentoring, diversionary strategies and vocational and educational training.

These alternatives to imprisonment must be given serious attention in light of the inherent cracks in Australia’s juvenile justice system. As the Listen to Children and Doing Time reports suggest, nothing highlights these cracks more than the steady increase in the number of children imprisoned and the skyrocketing rates of recidivism, particularly amongst Indigenous youth. Indeed, 20 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, these reports prove little progress has been made.

“[O]ut here the police act like God.”

The system is broken. Australia must employ and promote rehabilitative alternatives that enable, not risk the positive and constructive futures of Indigenous children.

Of course Indigenous juvenile crime is symptomatic of the need for more integrated and consultative implementation of funds for Indigenous child health and education. In this implementation, it is critical that Indigenous children themselves are participants in all decisions which affect them.

Our experiences as UN Youth Representatives have given us every hope that Australia can be a place fit for all its children.

The words of a 17-year-old boy, “I’ve been in and out of here since I was 10,” speak to a national crisis that will take the leadership of all Australians to solve. Together we can end that boy’s state of limbo and help him build a future.

A previous version of this article was originally published in 2011 on The Punch.

Chris Varney, Samah Hadid and Benson Saulo have served as Australian Youth Representatives to the United Nations from 2009-2011. The Listen to Children report can be viewed at