Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians outline 13 principles to better youth justice outcomes

Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre. Photo: Paul Jeffers

PRESSURE is mounting on the state government to reform the youth justice system, as children’s commissioners nationwide call for a rehabilitative focus.

A 13-point position statement by the Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians called for a trauma-responsive approach towards children and young people in youth justice centres, with community reintegration the focus of the child or young person’s treatment from the moment they entered detention.

Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People, Liana Buchanan, and Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Andrew Jackomos, were among the statement’s signatories.

“The Victorian government has committed to reform youth justice in Victoria. I hope they will take these principles into account when they do so,” Ms Buchanan said.

The commissioners called for the use of force, restraints, and isolation in youth justice centres to be banned, ‘except when necessary to prevent an imminent and serious threat of injury to the child or others, and only when all other means of control have been exhausted’.

Lockdowns were recommended as a practice of last resort, ‘and only in strictly limited circumstances’, while searches of a young person or child should be conducted ‘only when reasonable, necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim’.

“There is no question that we have work to do on most of those principles, including the use of restraints, the use of force, isolation, and the routine use of strip searches,” Ms Buchanan said.

Underpinning many of the points was a recommendation to publicly report use of discouraged practices to an independent oversight mechanism.

“I would say in Victoria, for youth justice centres, we already have a fairly rigorous level of independent oversight,” Ms Buchanan said.

Much of that work in Victoria is done by her office, the Commission for Children and Young People.

“In the past year alone, we have conducted an inquiry that exposed very high levels of lockdowns and the use of isolation on children in youth justice centres,” Ms Buchanan said.

“We have also conducted an inquiry on a child who had been injured through inappropriate use of restraint.

“We have reason to raise issues with youth justice centres on a monthly basis after we speak to the children and young people.”

But the commissioner said there would have to be legislative change to meet the requirements of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which Australia has committed to ratify.

“When Australia signs that protocol, governments both at a federal and state level will have to put in place independent monitoring for all places of detention,” Ms Buchanan said.

In terms of youth justice in Victoria, the Commission for Children and Young People would need broader powers to acquire information beyond the scope of a systemic inquiry.

It would also need a legislated right to enter a youth justice centre unannounced.

The Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre called on the Victorian government to action the principles in the position statement.

“Early intervention and policies that meaningfully invest in rehabilitation and support for kids in detention promote positive community outcomes for all, including a reduction in recidivism as adults,” legal practice manager Clare Sauro said.

“As noted in the paper, it is incredibly important to recognise that the vast majority of children in detention have experienced trauma and it is vital that youth justice systems recognise this and genuinely respond so that children leave detention in a better place than when they enter it.”

She highlighted one of the points in the statement addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in detention.

More than half of all young people in detention in Australia on an average night in the June quarter were Indigenous.

“We strongly welcome measures which address this and recognise how past government actions towards Aboriginal people have created trauma leading to this over representation,” Ms Sauro said.

“We also support the recommendation that youth justice detention centres be subject to external and independent review and oversight – this is vital to maintain the human rights of children in detention, keep a focus on quality rehabilitation and care for kids and to ensure that service providers are accountable.”

‘Adequate, skilled staff who are demographically representative of the children and young people in detention’ was another of the commissioners’ principles.

The government is actively seeking to recruit staff as youth justice precincts in Victoria expand, including 32 new beds at Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre.

The office of Minister for Families and Children, Jenny Mikakos, was contacted for comment.