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Indigenous children 28 times more likely to spend a night in detention, data reveals

Dechlan Brennan -

New data from 2022-23 has revealed First Nations children are 28 times more likely to spend a night in detention than non-Indigenous children.

It comes as several states look to enact - or continue with - laws that experts say will only exacerbate the number of children behind bars, despite calls for Indigenous people only to be incarcerated as a last resort and the federal government ostensibly committing to do more to close the justice gap. 

On an average day in 2022-23, 828 young people aged 10 or above were in detention, with 58 per cent of these being First Nations young people. 

Overall, the data showed a slight decrease in the rate of all young people who were in detention nationally. However, for Indigenous children, the rate increased almost 10 per cent.

On any average day in 2022-23, 828 young people aged 10 or above were in detention - 58 per cent of these were First Nations , with all jurisdictions - besides Victoria and the Northern Territory – seeing an increase in the number of Indigenous children and young people who spent time in detention over the period.

Justice Reform Initiative's Queensland Advocacy and Campaign Coordinator, Aysha Kerr, said: "Although this data shows an overall national reduction in the number of children being imprisoned, it's a very different picture when we dig deeper and look at each jurisdiction individually.”

Queensland, which has seen the government twice breach the state’s human rights act in the last 12 months, saw an 11 per cent increase on the number of Indigenous children being detained on an average night.

 

A total of 758 First Nations children spent time in detention during 2022-23, with the state now incarcerating more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children than anywhere else nationally. 

With the opposition vowing to take away detention as a last resort - a core recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody - there is significant concern these numbers will continue to rise. 

“The Queensland government imprisons more than double the number of children locked up in Victoria and tragically, the vast majority are First Nations children,” Ms Kerr said. 

She said the state now incarcerates Indigenous children at a “higher rate than anywhere else in the country.”

“We should be closing the gap for First Nations children, not widening it,” Ms Kerr said.

She noted the bail laws recently passed in NSW - which Premier Minns accepted would see more children spend time behind bars - would likely mean the next data set would see an “explosion in the number of children being imprisoned” in the state.

“This short-sighted, kneejerk policy reactiveness funnels more children into prisons instead of into programs that address the drivers of contact with the justice system, ultimately leading to worse outcomes for the whole community,” she said. 

"We need policymakers on all sides of politics to refocus their approach to get smart on crime instead of leaning on slogans about getting 'tough' - acting on the evidence of what actually works to prevent crime and improve community safety."

Elsewhere, data also revealed on an average day in 2022-23 nationally, 83 per cent of First Nations children and young people in detention were unsentenced, compared to 76 per cent of non-Indigenous people.

More than 9 in every 10 (97%) young people who were in detention during 2022–23 had been in unsentenced detention at some time during the year. 

Contrary to detention as a last resort mantra, of the 2,568 Indigenous children and young people who were incarcerated during the time period, 2519 spent time in detention whilst unsentenced. 

Rural health data released from the Royal Flying Doctor Service also painted a troubling picture for First Nations people, with the numbers coming on the heels of a scathing Productivity Commission report which argued governments across the country were not doing enough to close the gap. 

For both male and females, there is a 12.4-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people living in remote or very remote areas. 

In the period 2017–2021, for all remoteness areas combined, the age-standardised death rate among Indigenous Australians was almost two times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous Australians

Combined, Indigenous people living in NSW, Queensland, WA, SA and the NT were likely to die almost 20 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians.

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