Australia has been “operating in reverse” when it comes to Indigenous deaths in custody and the age limit for incarceration of children should be increased, Greens MP David Shoebridge has said.
His comments come at a time the country has recorded seven Indigenous deaths in custody in the space of two months.
“We have been operating in reverse in the last 30 years, we get more and more first nations peoples in jail. I do not know what you call that other than a collective failure of political leadership,” Mr Shoebridge said in an interview with Central News.
“No 12 or 13-year-old kid should be in jail. Australia is an outlier in this regard having the age of criminal responsibility start at 10.
“The overwhelming rest of the world has the age of criminal responsibility at least start at 14 years, in many cases 16 years. So obviously that’s what we need to start with.”
There have been an estimated 476 indigenous deaths in custody since the royal commission handed down its findings 30 years ago and most of the 399 recommendations have not been implemented.
The first and the most obvious response is to raise the age of criminal responsibility to the minimum of 14 years.
A 2019 Australian Institute of Criminology report attributed the main causes of Indigenous deaths in the prison system to natural causes and suicide.
The report also stated the majority of the deaths were of Indigenous people aged between 25-39 and due to natural causes. Most were from heart disease or cardiac ailments (73 per cent), strokes (13 per cent), respiratory conditions (7 per cent) and epilepsy (under 3 per cent). However some critics have challenged these statistics.
UTS Criminal law and Indigenous law professor Dr Thalia Anthony said: “I think what we have to remember is that, that language around natural causes or suicide and so forth, it kind of assumes that the person, you know, is inherently at fault. So, there is something wrong with the person.
“But many of these people died very, very young and in circumstances that could be prevented, like an asthma attack in the case of Nathan Reynolds, and… they didn’t receive the proper care.”
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016) data 44 per 1,000 Aboriginal young people are under juvenile supervisions compared to just three per 1,000 of non-Indigenous young people.
This has lead politicians and Aboriginal right activists to demand the amendment of the bail act 1978 which has been a driving force behind the criminal age responsibility in Australia which starts at 10 years old.
“The first and the most obvious response is to raise the age of criminal responsibility to the minimum of 14 years,” Mr Shoebridge said.
A 2019 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report found there were over representations of young indigenous people within the justice system.
The idea that we would send to prison a 10-year-old, without even convicting them. I mean it’s appalling.
Paul Wright, the national director of Antar, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocacy organisation, said: “It has a huge negative impact, not only while in prison, but it’s certainly after as well. And would contribute to high rates of recidivism by people ending up in the incarceration system.
“And I can say they talk about 30 per cent [juvenile incarceration] in some jurisdictions. [It’s] far higher than 30 per cent in the Northern Territory, juvenile incarceration, it’s pretty much 100 per cent.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander women is one of the fastest growing populations in prison, so yeah across the board, it’s not a good story, and of course, has an outsized impact on mental health both in prison and sort of post incarceration.”
Young people under juvenile supervision are five times as likely to come from a lower socio-economic background.
“The idea that we would send to prison a 10-year-old, without even convicting them. I mean it’s appalling… [it] seems to be an absolute violation of human rights and rights of children,” Ms Dr Anthony said.
Main image of jail cell by Jobs For Felons Hub/Flickr.