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WA Justice Department head quits amidst ongoing crisis in the youth justice system

Giovanni Torre -

The Director General of Western Australia's Department of Justice, Adam Tomison, has announced he is stepping down after seven years in the role.

During this period the state's youth justice system has been in crisis, with one death in custody, riots, self-harm incidents, the use of solitary confinement found unlawful by the Supreme Court, a class action by detainees now underway, allegations of shocking abuse detailed in letters from youth detainees, and criticism from current and former Inspectors of Custodial Services and Children's Court presidents, as well as other justice advocates.

Noongar law professor and human rights expert Hannah McGlade told National Indigenous Times that "under the watch of Dr Tomison, Aboriginal child and youth incarceration remained at unacceptably high levels with draconian responses such as Unit 18 implemented".

"The recent death of an Aboriginal 16 year old boy, Cleveland Dodd, remains a shocking indictment on the Justice department, and an urgent whole of justice review is warranted," Dr McGlade said.

"We hope the successor will show the foresight to work with Aboriginal people, respecting the principle of self-determination, which is critical to any and all reforms to youth justice and improving outcomes."

Noongar justice advocate Megan Krakouer, who has worked closely with current and former youth and adult detainees in WA for many years, said Dr Tomison "had to go as he proved unfit for the job".

"He made decisions and approved actions and plans like Unit 18 which were not in the interests of the children. He should have gone long ago. Others need to follow him," she told National Indigenous Times.

"I think about all the people who have taken their lives in prison and after coming out of prison. That is what I worry about.

"You see the desperation and the lack of humane treatment (in the system). I don't wish him ill, but with the hurt inflicted on people in the prison system - it is clear he has failed."

The Justice Department was formed in 2017 when the Departments of the Attorney General and Corrective Services were merged. Dr Tomison was appointed shortly before the merger.

On Monday he thanked "all the hard-working staff from across the Department – from the back room, corporate services, to the policy, legislative drafting and analytics teams and our important frontline services".

The outgoing Director General said "significant prison infrastructure projects" had been delivered along with "innovative prison services" including alcohol and drug rehabilitation, mental health and Aboriginal cultural support and language programs.

The Director General acknowledged that "(by) far the most difficult challenge of my career has been youth detention and managing the complex cohort of young people who emerged post-pandemic with a level of violence and destructive behaviour not previously seen".

"I am hopeful we have turned a corner, stabilised Banksia Hill and have a positive plan for a more enhanced therapeutic model and the development of a second facility to deliver safe and secure services for all young people in detention," he said.

Dr Tomison said the Department's Parliamentary Counsel's Office and Strategic Reform were "the engine rooms for major legislative reform, assisting enabling the government to respond to the COVID pandemic", and that other reforms "had major community impacts such as ceasing warrants of commitment for fine defaulters and creating a new work development scheme so disadvantaged people avoided prison for fines alone".

The Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Amendment Act 2020 was passed after years of campaigning by justice advocates to end imprisonment for unpaid fines in Western Australia. WA was the last state to abandon this practice. New South Wales had abolished it in 1987.

Dr Tomison also noted that expanding the role of the Office of the Commissioner for Victims of Crime has "helped family violence and sexual assault policy development and victim survivors have access to supports such as the National Redress Scheme".

He will continue in the role until late January 2024. His replacement will be appointed in the new year.

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