Since 2015, Amnesty International Australia has been working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in prison though the campaign ‘Community is Everything’. In Australia, Indigenous people are locked up at alarming rates, accounting for 27% of the adult prison population but only 3% of Australia’s adult population. This is even worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. For women and girls, the rates of imprisonment continues to escalate.
Australia formally endorsed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration) on 3 April 2009, after being one of only four nations to reject the Declaration. Amnesty International’s three research reports for the Community is Everything campaign, A Brighter Tomorrow, There is always a brighter future and Heads Held High, identify a number of breaches of the Declaration, as well as other human rights treaties, by all levels of Australian governments relating to children in the justice system.
In clear breach of international law, Australia continues to imprison 10 and 11-year-old children in every jurisdiction. This particularly affects Indigenous children, who make up four out of five of these very young children in prison.
Under Article 22 of the Declaration, Indigenous children must enjoy full protection from violence and discrimination. Yet horrific evidence of torture and abuse of children in youth prison has emerged in every jurisdiction in Australia. This includes hooding and gassing, inappropriate use of restraints, prolonged solitary confinement, use of dogs to intimidate, forcible strip searches and deprivation of food and medication. These abuses are mostly happening to Indigenous children, who make up only 6% of the youth population but 55% of children in prison.
Further, experts estimate that many children in prison are likely to have a disability. Preliminary findings from a recent study in a youth prison in Western Australia suggests that one in three children in prison are likely to have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. However Article 21 the Declaration requires special consideration of the needs of Indigenous children with disability.
This international shame for Australia must not be allowed to continue any longer.
Fortunately, Indigenous communities have the answers, and it is time for governments to listen. Articles 11 and 34 of the Declaration state that Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalise their cultural traditions, and promote and maintain traditional practices. There are many successful examples of Indigenous-led prevention and diversion programs for children, to help them be strong in their pride and identity, and to maintain strong connections with their culture and community so that they have a bright future, and are not caught in the quicksand of the justice system.
Amnesty International is calling for the Australian Government, in line with the UN Special Rapporteur’s recommendation, to adopt a national plan of action to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system. This must include increasing the age of criminal responsibility to at least 12 and investing in Indigenous-led prevention and diversion programs.