NACCHO health news:Governments failing to close the gap in the indigenous youth justice system

Close The gap

The policy is called ‘closing the gap’ and we’re not moving in the direction we need to.

STATES and territories have not only failed to close the gap in the indigenous youth justice system, but have overseen a widening in the past four years despite efforts to stop young Aborigines being jailed more often than their peers.

Data from various jurisdictions captures youth aged 10 to 17 and reveals Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children become part of the justice system earlier, are 16 times as likely to be under community supervision and 25 times as likely to be in detention than non-indigenous young.

But the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, Youth Justice in Australia 2011-12, released today, might have been compromised by the refusal of the West Australian Department of Corrective Services to participate and the failure of the Northern Territory’s Department of Correctional Services to find the data.

The jurisdictions have two of the largest indigenous populations, and the institute’s head of child welfare and prisoner health unit, Tim Beard, said the indigenous problem may have been larger had accurate data been obtained. “We’ve had discussions, given the nature of the demographies of these states, that this data would have been useful for an even more complete picture,” he said.

“We have relied on estimates where we can to form a national picture, which shows the supervision rates for indigenous youth have increased slightly, but not to the extent that you’d say the gap has significantly widened.

“But the policy is called ‘closing the gap’ and we’re not moving in the direction we need to.”

In 2011-12 there were 6940 young people under supervision for a crime or alleged crime on an average day in Australia, 13,830 throughout the year.

Although they account for 5 per cent of young Australians, 39 per cent of those under supervision were indigenous. On an average day there were 236 indigenous youth per 10,000 — up from 226 in 2008-09 — under community supervision, compared with 23 per 10,000 across the board. There were 42 indigenous youths under supervision in detention for every 10,000, compared with 1.7 for young Australians. This figure has worsened since a “best” result in 2010-11 where Aboriginal youth were 23 times as likely to be in detention compared with 25 times as likely today than non-indigenous youth.

They spent almost two weeks more in unsentenced detention and two weeks less in sentenced detention — possibly due to time served — but similar time in community-based supervision: 183 days on average.

“These are kids who are in detention with allegations that are basically unproven,” Mr Beard said. “It’s reasonable to assume that may be because of some prejudice against their race, and it may also be due to resourcing issues in remote areas where they are predominantly from.”

Mr Beard said the data indicated youth in detention were more likely to have multiple returns to the system, which could pose problems for the Queensland government, which is considering removing “detention as a last resort” policies.

Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie said no decision had been made on the review of the principle. “If the principle was changed, it may allow courts to consider a broader range of options when sentencing young offenders,” he said.