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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS
04/05/2010
Involvement of Indigenous juveniles and young adults in the criminal justice system

CHAIR —We are not, by our own standards, running badly late but I gather that the people who own this hall will want to close it at a particular time, and so we will try to keep to our timetable. I have great pleasure in welcoming the representatives of the Brisbane based Youth Advocacy Centre, Rosslyn Monro and Raylene D’Cruz. We would be very pleased to hear your opening statements.

Ms Monro —Thank you. I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to provide evidence.

I will start by providing a short background about what our organisation does. We are a community legal and welfare centre for young people aged between 10 and 16. That age group will become more apparent in our submissions today. We provide services to young people who are in the criminal justice system and in the child protection system, as well as other systems like education. We provide legal services including advice and court representation, and we also provide social welfare services that support young people who are going through the legal system or other parts of the system. We also provide community legal education and engage in law reform activities such as our representation today. Youth Advocacy Centre has been going for close to 30 years now, so we have long experience in providing services to young people, particularly in the greater Brisbane area.

Our interest in this particular issue is that whilst we do not have large amounts of Indigenous clients—because we have a protocol with ATSILS to provide legal services to Indigenous young people, as we have agreed that it is most appropriate for those legal services to come from that organisation—from time to time we would have Indigenous young people as clients. Either they have expressed a particular interest in accessing a mainstream service or there has been a conflict with ATSILS, because ATSILS does not provide representation to Indigenous young people in the same matter. Sometimes we are involved with Indigenous clients because there is a matter of urgency to be dealt with, such as if a young person is arrested and detained and they require an urgent bail application and we are best placed to do that.

Whilst we do not have large numbers of Indigenous clients at our service, and we acknowledge that there are more appropriate services to provide those services, a number of our observations and interests in particularly the youth justice system here in Queensland are very applicable to Indigenous clients because of the higher representation of Indigenous young people in the system. If there were significant changes in how we did things for mainstream populations we believe that there would be significant flow-on effects for the Indigenous community as well.

There are key areas that we have identified as being most significant to the over-representation of Indigenous young people in the criminal justice system. Firstly, Queensland is the only state in Australia that is in breach of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child in treating 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. If you are 17 in Queensland and you commit an offence you are dealt with under the adult criminal justice system, not the youth justice system.

That has significant impacts upon how those young people get treated. It impacts upon not only what might happen if they become incarcerated in that process but also the beginning stages of any legal process—whether that young people is guilty or innocent of what they have been accused. For example, if you are a 17-year-old in Queensland and you are arrested by the police and taken for questioning, your parents will not be rung up and told that you are in those circumstances. If you are young person in the youth justice system your parents are automatically involved. Clearly, the involvement of family and broader community is very important.

As the young person progresses through the justice system they may be treated differently through the sort of options that will be available to them for sentencing. Under the youth justice system in Queensland we have more restorative justice processes in our youth justice system—the options of cautioning and conferencing. Those options are not available to 17-year-olds in Queensland.

If a young person is imprisoned and goes to an adult prison, they are kept separate from the adult population, if they are lucky. In Brisbane it is called the ‘boys yard’. In the women’s prison they are kept within the general population. They have very limited visitation rights and there is no priority given to family to visit. If a young person decides that they most want to see their girlfriend on their one weekly visit, they may not have contact with their family for a very long period of time if they do not nominate family for a visit. They also have very restricted access to programs that we would consider to be rehabilitative for them, such as continuing education. Whilst corrections say that they provide those programs, and that is correct, in our experience young people’s access to those programs is difficult, long-winded and it is unlikely that a young person is going to benefit in a process where it is difficult to access those resources within that system.

We are of the view that if 17-year-olds were included in the youth justice system, this would have significant impacts on the Indigenous population, as they would have greater access to community based programs. They are more likely to maintain their contacts with their networks and their communities.

The next issue that we think would be critical to this area is the number of specialist children’s court magistrates in Queensland. There is only one in Queensland, as opposed to other states where there are several. Our submission is that the jurisdiction of the children’s court is a complex jurisdiction, and a magistrate exercising children’s court jurisdiction, along with a whole range of other jurisdictions that they may be exercising within the course of that court’s day, is not necessarily well versed to deal with some of the complex issues that are involved with young people and offending and getting positive outcomes for them through the justice system. We believe that more specialist children’s court magistrates would enhance those overall outcomes in terms of having a greater understanding about the key driving factors for a young person to appear in court.

The other issue that we would raise with the committee is that there is a relationship between young people who are in care and their criminalisation and how the youth justice system speaks to the child protection system if a young person becomes involved in the youth justice system. For example, in our experience it is not unusual for a young person who is in care to perhaps strike out at a carer in their placement and then for the police be called. So behavioural issues within a care placement are dealt with through the criminal justice process, as opposed to perhaps in another type of placement where there might be other strategies used other than just calling the police. So there is the criminalisation factor.

There is also the other factor with the child protection system, and that is: if your child is involved in the criminal justice system it is of benefit for the parent to be sitting in the back of the court advising the court about what is going on in that young person’s life and being involved in that process. If a child is in care, there is no guarantee that they have someone in a similar role sitting in the back of the court providing the support and providing the necessary information to the court about what is going on for that young person, in order to feed into the potential outcomes from the court process.

The fourth issue is the absolute dearth of drug and alcohol placements in Queensland, particularly south-east Queensland, for young people who want to detox and engage in rehabilitation. I was interested to hear the Queensland Health approach that young people were not accessing the services out in the community. I guess my question is: what are those services? Services for under-18-year-olds for drug and alcohol detox and rehabilitation are fairly thin on the ground. There is specifically no Indigenous service that would offer any kind of residential type service. We would submit that the lack of drug and alcohol community based services is a significant issue in an early intervention stage.

The fifth issue would be the recognition of elders in the children’s Murri court. One of the advantages of having a Children’s Court magistrate was that there was a children’s Murri court initiated out of the idea of the magistrate and the support of the community. However, we have not come very far with that concept. There has been acknowledgment that those court processes are much more appropriate for Indigenous young people, but we do not recognise the contribution that the Indigenous community makes to keeping that court going. There is no real formal recognition. I think they get a travel allowance of less than $40 to sit on court for a day. We see that as being a significant issue in the valuing of the work of the Indigenous community with their young people in those processes.

Finally, the perennial issue for us in Queensland is that there are high numbers of young people on remand. Actually addressing those numbers on remand is critical to ensuring that young people are not locked into a cycle of being in a detention centre. In our experience, having wraparound services that involve the young person in their community and some resourcing perhaps allows the remand issues to be properly addressed so that there are secure bail placements for young people. They are our major points. I am happy to answer questions from the committee.

Ms REA —I have one or two questions. The first question I have is a fairly broad one, and I will acknowledge that at the beginning. The focus of your submission and what you have said to us today is obviously very much on the issue of young people that are already in the criminal justice system, whether in detention, jail or the legal system in some other way. What we as a committee in this inquiry are looking for are some ideas or an understanding from community organisations working in this field as to what we could do practically to deal with young people before they even get into the criminal justice system. I acknowledge that YAC has been around for quite a while and done some fantastic work here in Brisbane in representing young people. I imagine that you would have a wealth of experience in your organisation that could give us some ideas about things that you believe could be done much earlier to assist young people to stay out of the criminal justice system.

Also, I would be interested to hear whether, as an organisation, you have noticed any particular trends emerging with Indigenous young people. Are the issues that were there 30 years ago the same issues? Are there new issues? Does there need to be a refocusing, if you like, of government policy and government programs to deal with new issues rather than just use the same old approach?

Ms Monro —Certainly YAC does deal with the pointy end of young people that are already in the system in some way. But, on that question, we see a greater level of legal representation as being pretty key to shortcutting even a young person’s entry into the youth justice system. It is not unusual for us to come across a client who has a huge number of charges and for those charges to have been inappropriately brought. They might have been either overcharged, in that the offence they have been charged with is far more serious than what actually occurred, or there may have been multiple charges for the one incident. We get a lot of our successes by being able to just make representations to police prosecutors by saying, ‘You really need to look at what you are charging this young person with because we don’t believe it will fly.’ We do some really solid advocacy around what a young person can really be charged with in any event if at all.

The problem becomes more acute the more you get into regional centres. There are no youth-specific legal services, through either Legal Aid or community legal centres, in the rest of Queensland. They are all situated in south-east Queensland. A couple of times we have heard from young people in Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville, ‘I don’t know who my legal representative is,’ or, ‘I can’t get hold of them.’ Just having good, decent advocacy on the ground can short-circuit a whole lot of issues.

That is not to say that there is not the hardcore, pointy end of the population that will keep circulating through, but the vast majority of young people will come across the youth justice system once and once only and never return. The population that channels through the system on a regular basis is very small. So, whilst it is not an early intervention strategy in a strict sense, legal representation and good, solid advocacy that is in the jurisdiction and knows the jurisdiction is really important to make sure that an issue does not progress further than it needs to.

Ms REA —On that point, we have heard a lot of evidence this morning, and indeed in other hearings, about the issue of traffic offences, particularly in relation to driving and driving licences. For example, if would you see overcharging or young people getting caught up in the system as an issue that could be dealt with differently that may—

Ms Monro —Yes, quite possibly. From our perspective, on an anecdotal basis, we do not see so many traffic related offences.

Ms REA —Because you are dealing with kids?

Ms Monro —That is right. But I guess the parallel for us would be some of the property offences. A young person on remand might take a chocolate bar and end up in detention because they do not have access to the necessary legal representation to make a speedy bail application. They might be in there for a couple of nights and it can start to roller-coaster out of control very quickly. It is those kinds of scenarios, or scenarios where there is an interaction with police which gets out of hand pretty quickly because of the circumstances, that can start to roller-coaster out of control. So some of the early intervention strategies for us would be doing some solid work with the police on how they go about performing their role with young people and the sensitivities around that. Clearly there is a lack of understanding in some cases about how their behaviour might escalate situations.

We also have a number of clients that are not engaged in any form of education. Education is key for maintaining young people’s sense of having something in their life to work towards. We have done a lot of work around suspensions and exclusions in schools. I think that, for some young people, once they are suspended or excluded from school, it is very difficult to re-engage with that process. So some of our advocacy has been around making sure that there are very fair, open and transparent processes around ensuring that young people who are suspended or excluded get a fair go and have access to processes. Currently, you can go through the administrative processes of education Queensland, which are quite arduous, have very short-time frames and can be difficult for a young person to negotiate. There are also very limited avenues of appeal, in terms of any sort of court process, once you get out of those administrative processes. Most young people are just not interested in following through some of those appeal processes in order to challenge some of the decision making around suspension and exclusion. So engagement with education and making sure that those suspensions and exclusion processes are accessible to young people is also key in early intervention and prevention.

CHAIR —Thank you. That was very enlightening. We thank you for taking the time and congratulate your organisation, which has worked effectively for a generation and a half now.

Ms Monro —Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 3.11 pm to 3.28 pm