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Jails are the crime

Over 70% of children imprisoned in Australia are indigenous. Graphic: Alec Smart

By ALEC SMART

A 12-year-old Aboriginal boy, Dujuan Hoosan, travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to appeal directly to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on an issue important to Indigenous Australians. In a televised address on Wednesday 11 September, he asked for UNHRC help ending something that most Australian political leaders are reluctant to change: children in prisons.
Indigenous children locked behind bars are disproportionately high, especially in the Northern Territory, Hoosan’s home, where almost 100% of the youth in jail are Indigenous.
“I come here to speak with you because the Australian government is not listening. Adults never listen to kids like me, but we have important things to say,” he told the UNHRC. “I want adults to stop putting 10-year-old kids in jail.”

Countless studies have shown children and young teenagers lack the ability to restrain impulsive behaviour, make reasoned judgements, or think about the consequences of their actions when committing offences. Similarly, their emotional reactions are less mature, which makes those in trouble with the Law more likely to accept a plea bargain or give false confessions when pressured by police and authorities to submit.

Jailed before the age of consent
Australia’s state and territorial legal systems permit the incarceration of children from the age of 10. Incredibly, this is six years below the age of consent for most states.
India, Singapore and Islamic nations Pakistan, Nigeria, Qatar, Yemen and UAE set a minimum age of 7 for imprisonable criminal responsibility, while Iran’s is 9 for girls, 15 for boys.
Australia sits alongside Malaysia, Ivory Coast, Fiji, Nepal, Bhutan, Syria, Papa New Guinea, Switzerland, Guinea, Vanuatu and the United Kingdom with a minimum age of 10.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has asked countries to raise the age to 14 years old, the common minimum age worldwide.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples urged Australia to increase the age of criminal responsibility, saying that children “should be detained only as a last resort, which is not the case today for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”
The Australian Medical Association, the Law Council of Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre, The Royal Australian College of Physicians, Unicef and Amnesty International all agree the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 14.

Indigenous-run solutions
Amnesty International states: “Despite overwhelming evidence from health experts, social workers, Indigenous leaders, legal experts and human rights organisations, Australian Governments are choosing to lock up children as young as 10 – and ignoring tested community solutions that actually help kids. Instead of putting kids this young behind bars, governments can fund Indigenous-led solutions and community programs which have better outcomes for children and communities..”

Hoosan raised several issues with the UNHRC, not only requesting Australian Courts cease the practice of jailing under-14-year-olds, but that measures be implemented to grant Aboriginal communities the power to educate their own people, speak their own languages and administer their own justice.
“I want my school to be run by Aboriginal people. I want, in my future, to be able to learn strong culture and language… It is about our dreams, our hopes and rights. I hope you can make things better for us…”

Hoosan, who appears in the film In My Blood It Runs, which examines how Australia’s education system fails to fairly represent Indigenous history and learning, told the UNHRC about how Aboriginal peoples feel marginalised by Australian society.
“The film shows Aboriginal kids tortured in juvenile detention. I know lots of kids that have been locked up. Police is cruel to kids like me. They treat us like they treat their enemies. I am cheeky, but no kid should be in jail. I want adults to stop being cruel to 10-year-old kids in jail.

Crimes are only petty
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) revealed in March 2019 that around 600 children below the age of 14 are prisoners in youth jails each year, but over 70% of them are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, although less than 5% of the total youth population in Australia are Indigenous.

AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, said: “The criminalisation of children in Australia is a nationwide problem that disproportionately impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
“Most children in prison come from backgrounds that are disadvantaged. These children often experience violence, abuse, disability, homelessness, and drug or alcohol misuse…
“Children who are forced into contact with the criminal justice system at a young age are also less likely to complete their education or find employment, and are more likely to die an early death. The AMA wants the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments to support developmentally and culturally appropriate health, education, and rehabilitative-based alternatives to the criminal justice system.”

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