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Involvement of Indigenous juveniles and young adults in the criminal justice system

CHAIR —We agreed earlier in the day that we would have a really quick word with Genevieve Sinclair. Welcome. Youth Empowered Towards Independence is a mysterious body in Cairns which I believe Genevieve is going to tell us about. Genevieve has made a quite late written submission to our inquiry, but, having heard some of the evidence during the day, she wanted to talk to us briefly about the content of that submission. In particular, you want to tell us about what you discovered from doing a survey of young Indigenous people who have been in and out of juvenile detention centres and, I think, prison as well. It may be illuminating.

Ms Sinclair —We are a community based organisation in Cairns. We work with young people aged from 12 to 25. We are funded by the Department of Communities, the Department of Health and Ageing and Queensland Health. Primarily we are a drug and alcohol and mental health service. The most relevant aspect of our service for this inquiry is the very busy drop-in space that we run downstairs. That is funded by Youth at Risk money. We employ 12 staff. One-third of our staff are from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. Over the last six months we saw—I looked through the stats the other day—about 150 young people coming through our drop-in space, and 95 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander young people. We are talking about very vulnerable young people who have been disengaged from the school system for a long time. Many of those young people at the lower end of our age group. Almost all the young people who attend the centre have had some involvement with the statutory system, the justice system, often repetitively—in and out of Cleveland. Some of the older young people are in an out of Lotus Glen frequently. Almost all was minor, recidivous-type offending—public nuisance charges, graffiti, shop stealing and all those sorts of things.

What we see through the centre is lot of intersection between drug and alcohol use, mental health and particularly inhalant use. We find that comes in peaks and waves. We also have a large number of young people involved in the intersection between the care system and the statutory justice system. About 70 per cent of young people involved through the centre were involved with the state care, child protection system in some aspect—either themselves or their families or in post-care, transitioning from care or ex-care. One of the observations we have made is that we do not tend to attract a large amount of local young people. A lot of the young people we see are from the Torres Strait and there is a large influx of young people from particularly Woorabinda, near Rockhampton, and some are from Central Desert. We are dealing with a group of young people who do not have significant local connection. Some do. Some have families here who will work with as well. The lot of them are extremely isolated and disconnected from country. We spend a lot of time facilitating their contact with family, assisting with brokerage to get kids home, and facilitating contact between people who are in the prison system and with family who might attend the centre as well. We also deal with a large number of young people who go through the watch house system—11- to 14-year-olds who are held in the Cairns watch house—and a large number of people who are exiting from Lotus Glen and arrive with little support on the ground.

This was really last-minute; someone had just notified me. I apologise for a really late submission. We had a chat to some of the kids yesterday who were in the centre. There were only five or six of them. Mind you, I was a counsellor there for a long time before I was managing. I have frequently discussed young people’s experiences of incarceration and reasons for offending. We were talking to the young people about their experiences in the adult watch-house or youth detention centre and they were fairly clear that they did not enjoy that time. They definitely preferred to be in community.

CHAIR —This was the specific thing that you and I spoke of informally. There is a belief that is quite widespread around the country that juveniles and young adults treat going to prison as a rite of passage, as a good place to go to meet your mates and as a place that proves you are tough. All sorts of imputations are made about whether young Aboriginal people like going to prison and if they do why. I gather that you have been specifically asking them this question. I am really interested in why it is that you think that those propositions are not right.

Ms Sinclair —Firstly, I do not want to be speaking on behalf of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or even young people that attend our centre. It is only the five young people I spoke to yesterday. We often provide a court support worker to go to the children’s court each week so we see a lot of the attitude that accompanies young people’s engagement with the court system. There is definitely a lot of, ‘Yes, I am off to Cleveland,’ but I would not say that young people, when we are hanging out with them in the drop-in centre, speak positively about their experiences in detention. They are frequently very relieved that they have not been sent through. When they were asked about their experiences in detention they generally say that it was not bad. It was slack. They did not hate it, but they did not want to be there. When they are in detention they call, often quite regularly, to talk to workers in the centre about what is going on and planning for their exit and they make it quite clear that they do not enjoy being there.

CHAIR —There would not be many people left in Australia who think that it is a good idea that youths are treated so harshly in a detention centre that they are positively frightened of going there, but the actual issue is whether being incarcerated is a deterrent. The rhetoric that I have been speaking of suggests that imprisonment is no deterrent for some young Aboriginal people, but you are sceptical of that I understand.

Ms Sinclair —I would say that it is no deterrent. Generally with most of the young people we are working with the crimes and activities they are involved in were incredibly spontaneous. They took risks when influenced by their peers. They were not thinking through consequences when they undertook them. Often the young people we are seeing are inhalant affected, which itself accompanies—

CHAIR —So they forget that detention even exists?

Ms Sinclair —Yes. I think that is not the thought they are having when they are engaged in those types of activities. I would not see it as a deterrent. I do not regard that they see it as a rite of passage or have a need to be there. There is no banter between young people who have spent time in detention and others about—

Mr LAMING —Without putting words in your mouth, Genevieve, I wonder whether these kids say different things when they are in detention to people like you than they do when they get home to their communities. I wonder if the message simply changes. That is a possibility.

Ms Sinclair —Yes. When managing the drop-in centre we have the luxury of seeing and being involved in a lot of the peer interactions that are happening between young people. Young people are not getting out and boasting and saying what a fabulous time they had or making it sound appealing to other young people.

CHAIR —That is terrific. Thank you for taking the trouble to be here all day.

Ms Sinclair —It was interesting. Thanks.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Turnour):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 3.11 pm