Representatives of Aboriginal youth, Indigenous legal services and human rights advocates are demanding urgent reform, after a report found an alarming increase in the number of children held on remand in Victoria.
The report by the Sentencing Advisory Council examined case outcomes for children on remand, meaning those held in detention when they have been denied bail but are yet to be sentenced, in Victoria in 2017–18.
It revealed two-thirds of the 442 children on remand did not receive a custodial sentence, and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the state are remanded at around eight times the rate of non-Indigenous children.
Gooreng Gooreng man and Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Justin Mohamed, has called for urgent alternatives and for a blanket ban on bail being denied to those younger than 14.
"Youth detention centres aren't set up in a way that does the rehabilitation to get a young person to be stronger, to move out and then get on with their life," Mr Mohamed said.
"It is very much a holding stock and the figures show that once young people enter into those places, they are four times more likely to re-enter as their life goes on,"
"We've got to try to keep them as far away as possible from youth justice centres, and remand is the first entry point which a lot of them find themselves there," Mr Mohamed said.
Bail can be denied for a range of different reasons, including where a regular place of residence cannot be identified or if there's no access to support services.
Despite only one-third of the cases receiving a custodial sentence after being on remand, the report found the time kept in detention was costly to both the government and the wellbeing of young Aboriginal people.
It found keeping children on remand, who were ultimately given community orders, other outcomes or charges dismissed cost approximately 15 million dollars.
Raise the age
Commissioner Justin Mohamed said there are immediate steps to take to address the rate of children on remand, including raising the age of criminal responsibility.
Under Australian law, children as young as 10 can be held on remand and put into detention.
The Victorian report found 26 children held on remand in 2017-18 were aged 10-13 years.
Co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Nerita Waight, echoed Mr Mohamed calls for reform and said the government is failing our children.
"No child belongs in prison, and remand is entrenching our kids in the quicksand of the justice system," Ms Waight said in a statement.
"Kids are being imprisoned and exposed to harm because government has not provided supports that could have kept them in community,"
"That 15 per cent of our kids are hauled through the courts, imprisoned and then released without a prison sentence shows that our kid’s lives don’t matter," Ms Waight said in a statement.
Executive Officer, Sophie Trevitt, said the latest statistics show urgent change is needed.
“Prison should only ever be an option of last resort, and yet what this report today confirms is that children are being thrown into prison cells for relatively minor misbehaviour that would never have seen them sentenced to a custodial sentence," Ms Trevitt told NITV News.
“All the medical evidence shows that any time behind bars can cause lifelong damage to a child’s development in these formative years. They are separated from their families, from their education and their community at the time when they need these positive relationships the most," Ms Trevitt said.
The report suggests possible strategies to reduce the risk of children entering remand, including establishing a fully resourced, state-wide, 24-hour bail system specifically for children and ensuring that specialist services and programs are designed both with and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.