Introduction by Croakey: First Nations female leaders from across Australia have demanded immediate reform to Western Australia’s approach to youth justice in the wake of today’s riots at the Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre.
Their call comes as the Australian Capital Territory introduced legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years, but in a stepped approach over two years that was criticised by Change the Record and other human rights activists.
Croakey editor Alison Barrett reports today on the moves, as well as a funding crisis for Aboriginal legal services that went unaddressed in this week’s Budget and is seeing the suspension of some services.
Alison Barrett writes:
Strong calls to the Western Australian Government for culturally safe and restorative approaches to youth justice have been made by First Nations female leaders today following riots at Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre.
“These children need to be cared for in a trauma informed and culturally appropriate way,” Aboriginal and Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar AO said in a joint statement with other leading First Nations women attending the Wiyi Yani U Thangani National Summit this week on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples in Canberra.
“This country needs to urgently address the crisis in youth justice to prevent further harm to children in detention, and to reduce youth offending through effective systems of support,” said Oscar, who is a Bunuba woman from Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
“The vast majority of young people in the youth justice system, including those involved in this morning’s events, have experienced significant trauma in their lives, which impacts on their health and wellbeing. This means that every decision made about them, and every response to their behaviour needs to be aimed toward care and rehabilitation,” Oscar said.
Backing the call, Commissioner for Children and Young People WA Jacqueline McGowan-Jones said restorative justice approaches, “rather than the heavy-handed approach we are seeing play out right now”, must be considered immediately. “The safety of the children is the number one priority,” she said.
Urging a peaceful resolution at Banksia Hill, Acting Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner Nicole Hucks said:
the frequency of incidents of this nature across the country, including in my own jurisdiction, tell us that we desperately need to reform our national approach to youth justice service delivery, particularly the earlier intervention and prevention of children being engaged in youth justice.”
See the full statement, featuring comments from other leading First Nations advocates.
Raising the age
Meanwhile, the ACT Government has been criticised on its stepped-approach to raising the age of criminal responsibility.
On Tuesday, the government introduced a Bill into the Legislative Assembly to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility initially to 12 years and then to 14 years by 2025.
While welcoming the commitment to raising the age, Change the Record Co-Chair Cheryl Axleby, alongside other human rights activists, criticised the ACT for not making an immediate change, saying “it is disappointing that yet again our children must wait”.
“The ACT’s commitment to only raise the age to 12 now is too little, too late and risks exposing more children to the vicious cycle of the criminal legal system,” she said.
No relief in the Budget
These urgent calls for action and reform come amid a funding crisis for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services which has led to the temporary suspension of some much-needed culturally safe legal services.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service Queensland CEO Shane Duffy told Croakey via email that it is “extremely disappointing that the national call for emergency funding for ATSILS appears to have gone unheard” in this year’s Budget.
Duffy said the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), of which his service was a member, had met with the Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus in the lead up to the Budget to outline the crisis. During the meeting, the Attorney General was briefed on the temporary services suspensions in Queensland “which I stressed would only increase without adequate funding intervention,” Duffy said.
“Despite our representations however, the indication is that our current funding issues won’t be considered until after the completion of the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 (NLAP) review in the second quarter of 2025.”
Culturally safe legal services vital
The funding crisis and need to maintain culturally safe legal services was made clear during an Emergency Town Hall hosted by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services last week.
At the online meeting, Duffy said they have had to temporarily suspend some legal services in Queensland including fresh arrest and traffic court matters due to increasing demand and workload.
He said decisions to suspend services were not easy but are necessary to ensure workplace health and safety of staff and also that legal matters at hand can be managed ethically.
In the end, he said, cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services will mean more people go to prison. Duffy said the worst-case scenario would be if “someone went into jail and actually died within a prison because of a lack of access (to legal support)”.
Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services CEO Nerita Waight told Town Hall attendees that VALS lawyers were resistant to “shutting down service provision because they wanted to continue to be there for community”.
Moving forward, Duffy said the Queensland service will continue as best it can: “deal with injustices but be solutions-focused…and community-led from community-controlled organisations”.
A statement from Attorney-General Mark Dreyfuss was read out during the meeting:
I note with concern your advice about the imminent service delivery freezes and closures across some ATSILS. I emphatically support the role of ATSILS in providing accessible, culturally appropriate legal and non-legal services and programs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who remain disproportionately represented at all points of contact within the justice system.
It has been my long-standing view that Aboriginal legal assistance is some of the most challenging legal and advocacy work. I sincerely thank ATSILS for the crucial work you do to support First Nations people. I recognise that funding for ATSILS must match the high demand for services. An independent review of the national legal assistance partnership is commencing this year. That review will be an important vehicle for any substantial changes in funding arrangements.”
The Emergency Town Hall can be watched in full here.
Petition to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfuss for emergency funding for Aboriginal Legal Services.
See Croakey’s extensive archive or articles on justice.
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