The daily detention rate for Indigenous children between 10 and 17 is 31.2 per 10,000. That rate is 23 times higher than non-Indigenous children, a report from the Productivity Commission on government services identified. 

A gross over-representation, as Indigenous children (aged between 10 and 17) make up only 5 per cent of Australia’s total population.  

The report section, Youth justice services, outlines the vast difference between the rate of youth Indigenous detention and non-Indigenous detention at 29.8 per 10,000 for daily detention. This difference is having a major impact on the mental and physical health of young Indigenous people. 

The total expenditure for detention-based, community-based supervision and group conferencing was in excess of $915 million across Australia in 2018-19. The report explains that the duty of care is higher for young people due to their age and vulnerability, impacting on the cost of detention. 

The University of Melbourne, the University of Sheffield in the UK and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) have joined forces, with researchers examining 245-peer reviewed articles focusing on the health of detained adolescents. 

The findings are unsettling. 

Detained adolescents have a significantly higher prevalence of mental health disorders, rates of suicidal behaviour, neurodevelopmental disabilities and sexually transmitted infections. 

In the paper published earlier this year, the researchers found, amongst others, societal factors including inequity and disadvantage put adolescence at further risk of entering the criminal justice system. 

University of Melbourne’s Head of the Justice Health Unit, Professor Stuart Kinner explains that in order to reduce the rates of reoffending that investment is necessary.

 “Investment in coordinated health, education, family, and welfare services for our most disadvantaged young people must be a priority, both to keep them out of the youth justice system, and to ensure that their health and social needs are met if they do end up in detention,” Professor Kinner explains.

“If we can screen for health and developmental difficulties while adolescents are in the justice system, we can identify unmet needs – often for the first time – and tailor evidence-based support to improve health outcomes and reduce reoffending once they return to the community.

“However, to make these improvements a reality we need greater investment in transitional programs and public health services.”

However, the problems for young Indigenous people entering detention will not be quickly resolved with a report in 2018 outlining that Indigenous children were 10 times more likely to be placed in foster care than non-Indigenous children. 

Indigenous children are three times more likely to be notified or reported to a child protection agency, and six times more likely to be subject to a child protection guardianship or custody order, a research article by Clare Tilbury from Griffith University reported.

Professor Kinner explains that recognition of the issues facing young people in detention from disadvantaged communities is key to reducing problems resulting from detention. 

“We need to recognise that these vulnerable young people typically spend only a short time in detention, before returning to the disadvantaged communities from which they have come.” 

By Caris Duncan