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SA Government must vote to stop children being held in adult watchhouses - advocates

Giovanni Torre -

The South Australian government has been urged to 'walk the talk' on its commitment to closing the gap, by taking an important stand and voting down the proposed Young Offenders Regulations in Parliament on Wednesday, advocates say.

The Justice Reform Initiative – an alliance including former parliamentarians from all sides of politics, as well as Aboriginal leaders, judicial figures, and community experts – said the new regulations would keep the door open for children as young as 10 to be held alongside adults in conditions that could cause long-term harm.

Regulation 9 of the regulations provides that children as young as 10 who are arrested more than 40 kilometres from the General Post Office in Adelaide may be detained in an adult watch-house or lock-up. Under this allowance, police detained children in adult watch-houses or lock ups more than 2,000 times in 2021-22. Police detained Aboriginal children 890 times using these regulations during that time.

The regulations allow children in regional centres such as Gawler, Mt Gambier, Whyalla, Murray Bridge, Victor Harbor, Port Lincoln, Port Pirie and Port Augusta to be detained alongside adults and without appropriate oversight.

Wednesday's vote comes amid nationwide scrutiny of the conditions for children who are detained. The Queensland government is racing to open a child-specific watchhouse after tightening laws and increasing the number of children in the criminal justice system, a Tasmanian inquiry has shone a spotlight on the horrific abuse and neglect of children there, and Western Australia's notorious Banksia Hill and Unit 18 youth detention centres have been the sites of riots, self-harm incidents and one death in custody in recent times.

South Australian Attorney-General Kyam Maher told Parliament in September 2023, in answer to a question from Greens Rob Simms MLC, that "…there has been very significant media attention on some of the difficulties with the Tasmanian Youth Detention system, which I am not sure are necessarily present in the South Australian system". However, the latest report from Training Centre Visitor Shona Reid, released this month, revealed the troubles plaguing the South Australian system through the views and lived experience of the children who are detained at Cavan.

Justice Reform Initiative's SA Advocacy and Campaign Coordinator (Children and Young People) Lorna Robinson said the government needed to take a stand to protect children.

"Children don't belong in prisons and they certainly do not belong in adult watchhouses," she said. "Continuing to allow children to be exposed to these environments and conditions only perpetuates injustice and harm," she said.

"The figures also show that Aboriginal children are disproportionately affected by this punitive policy position, flying in the face of efforts to close the gap.

"The rate at which South Australian children and young people are being isolated and having their mental health impacted, as seen in the Training Centre Visitor's Annual Report, is deeply concerning.

"These issues aren't new, but it's time we confront them head-on. Policymakers must keep children and young people out of watchhouses and advocate for a system that safeguards their rights, wellbeing, and future."

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