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New prison won't solve youth justice crisis, advocates warn

Giovanni Torre -

The announcement of the development of a business case for a new facility to replace WA's notorious Unit 18 should not deflect attention from the ongoing harm caused to incarcerated children in the state or the "deep-rooted failure" of Western Australia's youth justice system, the Justice Reform Initiative says.

Initiative executive director Dr Mindy Sotiri urged the WA government to closely consider the evidence on effective intervention strategies for children and young people, before committing to building a new maximum security youth prison next to Banksia Hill.

"A new building is not the same as a new approach," she said.

"The problems at Banksia Hill have been clear for decades, and the pledge for a new maximum security facility next door does not address the over-use of harmful incarceration of children at Banksia, nor the strong body of evidence that shows the current punitive approach to youth justice is failing.

"Children, families and communities in Western Australia need real and sustainable reform, based on the evidence of what actually works to turn lives around and address the drivers of behaviour that bring children into contact with the criminal justice system.

"Locking children up, whether on remand or in detention, only entrenches the issues which have brought them to that point. It doesn't solve them. If the Government is committed to developing a business case for a new prison, at the very least, they should also commit to the development of an alternative business case which prioritises investment in evidence-based community led alternatives."

On Thursday morning the WA government announced it will build a new "high security, therapeutic youth detention facility" to accommodate the state's "most challenging young offenders".

Premier Roger Cook and minister for corrective services Paul Papalia said in a joint statement that the recently completed Youth Justice Infrastructure Review confirmed Banksia Hill Detention Centre "cannot safely and securely accommodate this high-risk cohort".

The government said the review recommends a new centre be built adjacent to the existing facility – providing young people with "the level of monitoring, supervision and support they need to stabilise their behaviours and return to Banksia Hill".

The two-site proposed model will "see the most challenging young people provided high levels of support in the new facility – enabling Banksia Hill to focus on giving stable, therapeutic interventions and education to more settled detainees".

The government noted that given many young people enter the justice system while affected by substances or with behavioural issues, the new facility will accommodate any high-needs remand detainees - before they are assessed for placement at Banksia Hill.

The government said $1 million has been allocated in the Mid-Year Review to undertake detailed planning and a business case on specific location, cost and timeframes for the project. The Mid-Year Review will see a total investment of $77.1 million to improve staffing, facilities and service provision in youth justice, including $34.2 million to boost staffing levels at both Banksia Hill and Unit 18, for Youth Custodial Officers, Aboriginal Health and Services Officers plus other non-operational staff.

Mr Cook said the government "is turning around our youth justice system".

"A new high security custom-built detention centre will allow the State's most complex juvenile detainees to receive the therapeutic care and intervention needed," he said.

"It will also allow for the closure of Unit 18, in a sensible and safe manner. Before that happens, we are spending over $169 million enhancing facilities and services available at Unit 18 and Banksia Hill Detention Centre. It means there will be more staff, more support and better safety measures in place."

The announcement of the closure of Unit 18 came one day before the planned funeral of Cleveland Dodd, the 16 year-old Indigenous boy who died in custody on 19 October, one week after self-harming in the controversial youth detention centre.

Dr Sotiri said on Thursday that research "overwhelmingly" shows the solutions to reducing incarceration, and the cycle of disadvantage and imprisonment, are not based on building new 'purpose built' facilities.

"Investing in proven community-led supports and programs that address the drivers of incarceration deliver far better results for individuals, their communities and taxpayers," she said.

"The vast majority of children who come into contact with the justice system have experienced disadvantage and challenges which none of us would want for our kids. We cannot use these children for political point scoring.

"A smarter evidence-based approach to justice requires cross-party support and action. No government can fix this problem on their own, and we urge the Government to undertake meaningful consultation on the best way forward.

"Western Australians need their policymakers to take the politics out of prisons and follow the evidence for an approach to criminal justice that actually works."

Mr Papalia said the Youth Justice Infrastructure Review identified the need for a purpose-built facility to house a small cohort of challenging and disruptive juvenile detainees.

"(It) will allow for a multi-tiered strategic response and easy access to shared services. A new operating model is now in effect at Unit 18, which has allowed for improved out-of-cell hours and greater support for the most challenging young people in detention," he said.

The state government noted $8.2 million will fund upgrades to programs and services such as cultural, enrichment and support offerings, Aboriginal health services and foetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) training.

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