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National Aboriginal justice taskforce needed to tackle youth justice crisis - top law expert

Giovanni Torre -

A leading expert on international human rights law has called for the creation of a national Aboriginal justice taskforce in response to the youth justice crisis.

Noongar law professor Dr Hannah McGlade said the problem, which made headlines again on Saturday with a riot in Banksia Hill Detention Centre, was not isolated to Western Australia.

"Across the country we are seeing it. In Queensland we have seen a knee-jerk 'tough on crime' reaction which denies any respect for human rights of Indigenous children," she said.

"They have introduced new laws to increase the penalty for car theft to 10 years in prison, with no consideration whether that actually increases community safety. It will lead to greater incarceration of children.

"In fact, these harsh laws are increasing the risk to the community."

Dr McGlade said Australian jurisdictions have seen "dangerous trends for some time" which account for the high incarceration rate of Indigenous youth.

A review by Nous Group commissioned by the Western Australian government 18 months ago recommended it overhaul Banksia Hill Detention Centre, and shift from "punitive control" to "therapeutic care" – an approach long advocated by independent experts.

The state government said the review was an "internal document" that would not be made public.

Dr McGlade said a restorative justice model is needed but the consultants "refused to work with Aboriginal people in developing this model".

"It was quite disappointing that they agreed to those terms from the government. The principal of Aboriginal self-determination is critical to resolving the crisis in incarceration of Indigenous children nationally.

"We have to address systemic racism; we have to address the denial of Indigenous human rights under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the wider, clear advice we have from the UN treaty body system."

Dr McGlade urged the federal government to show greater leadership on the issue.

"They are responsible for the UN treaties and must work more closely with the states to ensure there is compliance," she said.

"These are very serious violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination."

The law professor noted that Closing The Gap, "as a national policy, is failing, particularly in regards to incarceration rates".

"The Attorney General should establish a national Aboriginal justice taskforce as a matter of urgency. Children are being harmed for life; we are fortunate there has not been a death in custody in youth detention but we are hearing about serious suicide attempts. It is completely unacceptable," she said.

"We have a national commitment to justice reinvestment, we have two pilot sites, but there needs to be more investment for an immediate response, and this has to be done in partnership with Aboriginal people across the country."

Dr McGlade noted that the Commonwealth's Crimes Act 1914 sets the age of criminal responsibility at 10 years of age, contrary to the United Nations recommendation of 14 years of age.

"The Federal government… have to demonstrate their responsibility to human rights law," she said.

"The Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and Senator Pat Dodson attended United Nations meetings in New York, there needs to be more serious engagement with the international human rights system. This is international law."

A spokesperson for federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said the Attorney-General and the Minister for Indigenous Australians "are working together closely on the justice outcomes within the National Agreement on Closing the Gap".

"This includes targets to reduce overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children by 30 per cent by 2031," she said.

"As part of broader Closing the Gap initiatives the government has committed $81.5 million towards national justice reinvestment initiatives across the country.

"The Government is working closely with state and territory governments on the issue of raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility. The decision by the Northern Territory to raise the age to 12 is evidence of the progress being made."

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