Home > Australia, Law, Politics, Social Commentary > Kids in Adult Prisons – only in Queensland

Kids in Adult Prisons – only in Queensland

Eighteen years ago, on the 5th of August, 1992, the Queensland Labor Government made a pledge to amend the law so that 17 year olds would be transferred back into the juvenile (now, “Young People”) detention system and taken out of the adult prison system. Labor has forgotten its pledge to Queensland children and there is a campaign afoot to remind it.

You might wonder why this matters. You might also think there’s nothing you can do about it. I know: both those thoughts crossed my mind too. Some time ago now, I’d worked for almost 2 years in criminal defense, which is enough time to become cynical about the world and burnt out by the misery of it all – so much so that defending insurance companies afterward seemed like a cake walk. However, I digress.

In 1992, when the Juvenile Justice Act (now, “Youth Justice Act”) was passed by Queensland Parliament, the Labor Government pledged:

“It is the intention of this Government, as it was of the previous Government, to deal with 17-year old children within the juvenile, rather than the adult system, as per the Kennedy Report into prisons. This is consistent with the age of majority and avoids such children being exposed to the effects of adults in prison, thereby increasing their chances of remaining in the system and becoming recidivists. This change will occur at an appropriate time in the future.” (Qld Parliament, 5 August 1992:p.6130).

There’s always been the legislative scope to easily change the position to allow 17 year old offenders to be dealt with pursuant to the Youth regime rather than the adult regime, but no regulation has ever been established, meaning Queensland is the only state that treats 17 year old offenders as adults.

This raises a number of questions:
* Why use tax-payer money to fund a report which the government chooses to ignore? I want a refund. Or value for money. And an apology to the author of the report.
* If Queensland is the Smart State, how come the law defines an adult to be an adult of 18 years except when it’s a 17-year old committing a crime here and not elsewhere? Something yonder brays.
* Under the Child Protection Act, there is an obligation to investigate incidents of children who may be at risk of harm. How does this work when the government is the one putting the child in harm’s way?
* Is it not foreseeable that putting child offenders in with adult offenders would increase risk of injury to the minors? One might cough sideways three times in a way which could sound like “negligence”.
* How is this not a contravention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? (as Damian Bartholomew points out).

Queensland’s Children’s Commission, Anti Discrimination Commissioner, Queensland Heads of Churches, United Nations and youth and legal advocates have urged the government to fulfill its commitment to transfer 17-year olds from adult prisons to juvenile detention centres. The Youth Affairs Network Qld, which is the peak body promoting the rights and interests of young people in Queensland, has postcards circulating, which people can write comments on and send in to the Premier, Anna Bligh. While one must appreciate that there are plenty of other priorities in government, especially now, with election fever and State Labor struggling in the polls, it’s inexcusable that a decision can take that long to implement. But of course, bad kids don’t win sympathy or votes in voter-land. Besides, kids don’t vote, either, so screw that.

You might ask what’s the hold up. The answers would seem to be: money and public sentiment. The spoils of the never-ending mining boom have been lost and there simply is no money to improve or extend existing facilities for young people – it’s easier and cheaper not to change things. And besides, most people wouldn’t know this was even an issue and even fewer would care, unless they really thought about it.

I’ve spoken to people on both sides of the debate. Police, who are faced with controlling other people’s unruly and criminally-inclined children are sick of the repeat offenders and the slack, limp-wristed punishment given to young offenders (which don’t have the requisite deterrent effect). Police have no interest in amending the law, and who can blame them. No-one should have to put up with the rubbish that they endure on a daily basis, while the rest of us sit back and demand better law and order but vote with our eyes closed, nonetheless.

Youth advocates also come in all shapes and sizes and have dedicated their lives to trying to help the sometimes un-helpable. Which begs the question: how, as a society, are we letting it get to this?

My personal view is that the law should be consistent – an adult is an adult, not a child with one year to go – and the government has a responsibility to children in its facilities (to protect them from harm and not to put them into an environment which all but removes any chance of rehabilitation). To that effect, the law should be changed, as promised. However, we’ve had Labor both at State and Federal levels and I, for one, would like to know why so little has been done in the way of law and order as well as for the protection of children. The social engineering sins of the past are wildly bearing fruit and rotting before our eyes. And it stinks.

Children go off the rails for various reasons, but they stay off the rails because of inadequate parenting, inappropriate social infrastructure and the decay of respect for the law and those who uphold it.

Demand that the law be changed, but also demand a change to the circumstances that see those children going to prison in the first place.

Thanks to readers: David, aa, Cheryl, Darren and ak.

Please feel free to add your comments, below. Anonymity will be respected.

UPDATE:
This issue makes Australia look bad internationally. It transcends political battle lines.
Thank you to the following people for their speedy and thoughtful responses:
Damian Bartholomew, solicitor.
Wendy Francis, Lead Senate Candidate for Family First http://www.wendy4senate.com
Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, The Greens Candidate for the Division of Lilley
Andrew Bolt, journalist. http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt
Nick Earls, author http://www.nickearls.com – Thanks for the words of support!

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  1. Cheryl Harrington
    August 26, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Sincere thanks to Theresa Lauf for what she has written regarding 17-year-olds in Queensland’s Adult Prisons. This is an issue that is very close to my heart.
    In one of my former careers I was a secondary teacher in schools all over Australia. Needless to say I came into contact with many kids who were not suited to our educational system for numerous and varied reasons.Sadly, in many cases, those individuals ended up running into trouble with the police and ultimately had to be dealt with by the legal system.
    It is appalling that Queensland is so totally out of step with the rest of Australia ; how can it be that we are the ONLY state that transfers young offenders from the juvenile system into adult prisons as soon as they turn 17 ? This is a travesty of justice of the worst kind.
    Theresa pointed out in her article that, as mentioned by Damian Bartholomew, it is in contravention of a United Nations ruling. Yet here in democratic Queensland (supposedly !) this is openly happening. How can this be the case ? ?
    Regardless of the reasons why this is occurring : cost ? lack of interest by the people who make these decisions ? not enough votes in the issue ?….the fact is that it is WRONG in every inherent sense of the word.
    Who cares that these Forgotten Kids (my own term) are rubbing shoulders with hardened criminals when they turn 17 and are moved across to adult prisons. I wonder if things would change for the better, and very quickly, if some of the children of our illustrious politicians were to fall foul of the law and get locked up at the age of 15 or 16, or worse still, 16 and a half ! Would it be a different story then perhaps ?
    I have deliberately referred to these young offenders as the Forgotten Kids,(as I said above, my own term) so as not to confuse them with the Forgotten Australians, otherwise known as The Lost Children.
    We’re all familiar with Kevin Rudd’s well-known formal apology to all Indigenous Australians regarding the Stolen Generations ; he made that speech in parliament on the 13th February, 2008. That needs no explanation.
    I wonder if you’re also aware that on the 16th November, 2009 he formally apologised in parliament to The Lost Children. These were the children who had been transported, without their consent, 12000 miles from England to Australia between 1947 & 1967. 10000 of them in total, aged between 3 and 15 travelled unaccompanied to populate Australia. They’d been told completely fictious stories (too sad and horrible to mention here),contrived by the British Government, the Australian Government and the Heads of Churches of both nations. This was the era of the White Australia Policy and our government was worried about being overrun by the Asian hordes. I won’t go into that matter any further here.
    I strongly urge you to firstly read about The Lost Children if you’re not already familiar with that shocking time in our history and then read Kevin Rudd’s 16/11/09 parliamentary speech apologising to them. The full transcript of the speech is available on the Internet.
    You might ask, where am I going with this ?
    Let me tell you ;I want to know :-
    (1) WHEN are we going to apologise to our Forgotten Kids who are wrongly
    incarcerated in adult jails ?
    (2) WHO’S going to stand up and take responsibilty for the apology ?
    (3) HOW are the wheels of change going to be set in motion
    (4) and by WHOM ? ?
    How can the powermongers remain so ignorantly unaware of the Big Picture related to this issue ? Surely the Picture is easy to paint.
    Wouldn’t it be much easier to rehabilitate 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile system than wait until it’s too late when they’re already mixing with all the wrong types in the adult system ? Or am I being too simplistic ?
    WHAT DO WE WANT FOR THESE FORGOTTEN KIDS ? A future with some hope attached to it or just the opposite ?
    Let’s remember that we’re not only talking about THEIR future ; their future is closely intertwined with OUR society’s future.
    SPEAKING AS A PAST EDUCATOR, WHOSE SHOULDERS DO I HAVE TO VIGOROUSLY SHAKE TO GET THIS IMPORTANT MESSAGE THROUGH TO ?

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