Recent images in the media of a teenage prisoner being punished with a spit mask over his head at a Brisbane jail has prompted the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) to call on the Queensland government to urgently modify the Juvenile Justice Act 1992.
ALHR proposes that the government increase the age in this act from 17- to 18-years-old and remove all children from adult prisons in Queensland.
“Queensland is the only state in Australia to treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system and therefore imprison them in adult jails,” ALHR vice-president Kerry Weste said.
“Not only is this in clear contravention of Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), but it is also contrary to everything the available research tells us we should be doing to reduce rates of recidivism and rehabilitate young people.”
Ms Weste noted that when the Juvenile Justice Act was passed by the Queensland parliament in 1992, then-Minister for Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, Anne Warner, said it was the intention of the government to deal with 17-year-old children within the juvenile, rather than the adult, system.
Despite this, Ms Weste said Queensland continues to incarcerate children in adult prisons under “arcane laws”.
“The available data irrefutably evidences that the placement of children in adult prisons exposes them to a drastically increased risk of irreversible psychological harm, physical abuse, sexual abuse, suicide and recidivism when released back into the community,” she said.
“This is precisely why the juvenile justice system was developed a century ago. It is clear that housing young offenders with adult prisoners is both self-destructive and self-defeating.”
Ms Weste said 17-year-olds are unlike adults and should not be treated as if they are adults.
“[The fact] that Queensland currently calls a 17-year-old child offender an adult does not in fact transform that child into an adult,” she said.
“Scientists know that the adolescent brain is still developing. Treating 17-year-olds as adults within the criminal justice system fails to acknowledge the fundamental differences between adults and children, and the way in which these differences impact upon both criminal responsibility and rehabilitative and therapeutic needs.
“Recognising that children are different to adults does not mean that young people are not dealt with for the offences they commit. Regardless of what they have done, a 17-year-old child is still a child and incarcerating them in adult prisons is in fundamental breach of Australia’s human rights obligations.”
Ms Weste said the Queensland government must reflect on the trauma and damage it is causing to the children currently incarcerated in adult jails.
“It not only constitutes a fundamental breach of Australia’s human rights obligations, but is doing a damage so profound and irreversible that it may entrench within these children a criminal mindset and create a pathway for an adult life of crime,” she concluded.