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Human rights advocates sound alarm as Queensland passes "dangerous" youth justice changes

Dechlan Brennan -

The Queensland government's controversial youth crime laws which passed the state's parliament last week have been criticised by legal and human rights groups as "disappointing" and "dangerous".

Amendments to the Youth Justice Act 1992 include overriding the state's Human Rights Act by making breach of bail an offence for children. In introducing the bill, Police and Corrective Services Minister Mark Ryan said he did not take the decision to overrule the Act "lightly," but considered it "necessary".

While Mr Ryan told parliament that "anything we do must be evidence based", Queensland's human rights commissioner Scott McDougall called for the government to "urgently change its approach to youth justice policy to better protect the rights of children, victims of crime and the broader community".

"I am unaware of any evidence that increased maximum penalties of imprisonment will deter a child from engaging in risk-taking behaviour," Mr McDougall said.

During the debate of the bill, the Police Minister said the bill will allow "longer periods of detention" for young offenders and admitted that the legislation was "incompatible with human rights".

First Nations people in Queensland are overwhelmingly overrepresented in the justice system, with Indigenous children accounting for 62 per cent of Queensland's youth detention population.

The Queensland Law Society has argued the bill will have a "disproportionate impact on at risk young people".

"…[I]t is also simply unacceptable to continue to pass legislation that will have an indirect discriminatory impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people," the group said in a statement.

Debbie Kilroy OAM, chief executive of Sisters Inside, an organisation that supports incarcerated women and girls, told National Indigenous Times: "these are the most dangerous laws we have seen put forward to deal with children in crisis with zero evidence to support their introduction."

Ms Kilroy expressed fear that children would be sent to adult prisons, for which a precedent has been set by children from Banskia Hill in Perth being sent to a unit of Casuarina Prison – a maximum security, adult facility.

"The watch houses are already full, and the children's prisons are full. My worry now is that this government will commission part of an adult prison to cage children like the WA government did," she said.

Ms Kilroy's fears seem to have been realised, with Mr Ryan announcing the bill will increase the number of children held on remand and in detention and it was "likely" children would eventually be moved from juvenile facilities to adult prisons.

"To assist detention centres to accommodate the anticipated increase, the bill enables the transfer of certain 18-year-old sentenced or remanded detainees to adult facilities," he told parliament.

Mr Ryan's comments come less than a month after a Queensland Children's Court judge labelled the decision to keep a 13-year-old First Nations boy with multiple developmental conditions in solitary confinement for 20-24 hours a day during a heatwave as "cruel".

Justice Tracy Fantin slammed authorities for keeping the boy — who was on remand and has been diagnosed with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder— confined to his cell for 78 out of the last 87 days of his time in youth detention, labelling it "inappropriate" and having served "no rehabilitative effect".

In her judgement, Justice Fantin said: "…[N]ot only is there no evidence that that detention has had any rehabilitative effect, I am satisfied that the detention is likely to have caused you significant harm."

"To detain a young person who has your deficits and impairments, for the offense in question, for such a long period of time is, in my view, completely contrary to the regime of the Youth Justice Act and the Youth Justice principles," she said.

Another 13-year-old First Nations boy – known as Jack – was released with a verbal reprimand after he spent 45 out of 60 days in solitary confinement whilst being held for minor offences at the Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville.

His lawyer, who said the boy had "no serious criminal history", described his detention as "extraordinary and cruel, telling the BBC that he had flooded his cell with water from the toilet out of desperation after being denied drinking water. The boy spent six days of his detention in an adult prison, and 22 days consecutively in solitary confinement.

Ms Kilroy told National Indigenous Times that the impact of this legislation was purposeful.

"We can act to reduce the harm. We know how to do that. This Palaszczuk government is choosing not to," she said.

"We are on a slippery slope to legislating the kind of policing we are seeing elsewhere in the world that has horrified us – the kind of policing that targets First Nations' youth."

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   Dechlan Brennan   

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