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New data shows youth incarceration costing public over $1 million per child, experts urge 'Raise the Age'

Dechlan Brennan -

New data has highlighted the detrimental cost to both taxpayers and children in detaining youth inmates, as debate continues about methods to deal with youth incarceration.

Evidence shows the status quo is only resulting in an increase of recidivism and trauma as the productivity commission reported the average daily number of young people aged 10–⁠17 years under youth justice supervision in Australia in 2022-23 was 3,446, at a rate of 2.7 per 10,000 young people.

For the taxpayer, this is a cost of $2827.47 per incarcerated youth per day, an increase of $20 from the previous year. Overall, it costs $1.03 million per year to house one youth offender.

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight told National Indigenous Times it was obvious the current system was broken and hurting children.

"The evidence is clear that putting children in prison does not work," the Yorta Yorta and Narrandjeri woman said.

"It doesn't change the behaviour that it is supposed to – in most cases it makes a difficult situation much worse."

She argued the 'tough on crime' mantra which states have adopted has failed. It hasn't reduced crime, or made the community safer, and pushed more children into the justice system and into a pipeline of trauma.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are horrifically over-represented in youth detention, with Indigenous children being housed in detentionâ€'based supervision at 28 times the rate of non-Indigenous children. The 'worst' jurisdiction was Queensland, where Aboriginal children were imprisoned at an average daily rate of 46 per 10,000 compared to 1.6 per 10,00 non-Indigenous children.

With calls to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 - in line with medical consensus and United Nations standards - the data shows First Nations children aged 10–⁠13 years are considerably over-represented in detention.

Of the 600 10–13 years old incarcerated, over 70 per cent were Indigenous. In Western Australia, First Nations children aged 10-13 were imprisoned at a rate of 126 per 10,000 people, compared to just 2.8 per 10,000 for non-Indigenous children of the same age.

On Wednesday, human rights groups criticised the South Australia government for committing to only examine raising the age of criminal responsibility - and only to only 12 - despite a report commissioned by the Labor government in 2022 explicitly calling for the age to be raised to 14.

Nationally, Tasmania has committed to raising the age to 14 in 2029, and the ACT in 2025, whilst Victoria will raise it to 12 in 2025 and 14 in 2027. Both the ACT and NT have already raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12.

A spokesperson for the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told National Indigenous Times: "The issue of raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility through the Standing Council of Attorneys-General."

"The Government remains committed to reform that will enable First Nations communities to establish locally tailored initiatives that address the underlying causes of incarceration, including through the establishment of a national justice reinvestment program," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson highlighted a number of communities who will shortly be notified if they are successful applicants to receive early justice reinvestment support.

Libertarian think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) argued their research found prison was not rehabilitating youth inmates, pointing to data showing an increase in violent offending. For 2020-21, 57.8 per cent of children aged 10-16 under sentenced supervision returned to sentenced supervision within 12 months.

Data: Dechlan Brennan/Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

"The case for reform in every jurisdiction is clear as youth prisons are clearly not preventing the criminal behaviour of young offenders," the IPA said in a statement.

"Locking up non-violent youth offenders with dangerous and violent offenders is creating more hardened criminals, and the data shows that youth prisons are not a deterrent for youth crime."

In Queensland, children have been kept in adult watchhouses, resulting in the suspension of the Human Rights Act. In Western Australia, Unit 18 - which is scheduled to close - is housed on the grounds of Casuarina maximum security facility. Last year it saw the tragic death of 16-year-old Cleveland Dodd.

The Justice Reform Initiative has run on a "jailing is failing" mantra, with a portfolio of signatories that span the political spectrum. They've called for leaders to "act on the evidence with smarter policies to address crime and disadvantage - investing in families and communities, not prisons for kids."

It is clear from all evidence children being housed in detention is not working. From a cost point of view, it remains significant for the Australian taxpayer; whilst evidence shows early interactions with the justice system only exacerbate trauma for some of Australia's already most disadvantaged and susceptible youths. This in turn is statistically likely to cause recidivism and harm the community in the long run.

Solutions suggested that can be implemented quickly include reducing the significant proportion of children who have not been found guilty of any crime but are incarcerated on remand, against the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Utilising more community-based approaches, including getting people into meaningful employment, has also been suggested. Other organisations have pushed education at facilities, as well as support for children whose family members are incarcerated in order to break the cycle.

For the Advisory Commission into the Incarceration Rates of Aboriginal Peoples in South Australia - set up by the Labor government in 2022 - the status quo is only operating in one way: "The current justice system is not working and is failing Aboriginal children, young people, and adults."

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