First Nations folks can not have fun whereas Australia is locking up our youngsters | Roxanne Moore | Australia information
I feel that familiar knot in my stomach every year as invasion day approaches on January 26th. I know he will bring racist and divisive comments and an in-depth examination of the First Nations peaceful protests.
But we need to remind the wider community why we are exercising our democratic right to protest (with Covid-safe precautions). We cannot celebrate on January 26th while our people are exposed to ongoing human rights abuses. Especially for our young people who are our future warriors, our hope for self-determination, protection of the country, continuation of our culture. One clear solution that governments can now implement for the future of our young people is to raise the age of criminal accountability.
At the moment, all Australian governments are failing on Aboriginal young people and the Torres Strait Islander. Every state and territory imprison children aged 10 and over. It is our national shame that 65% of 10-13 year olds incarcerated are indigenous when our children make up just 6% of Australia’s youth population. Most of these imprisoned children are also in child protection and live with a disability, including cognitive disabilities.
Every time governments lock our children up, they rob them of their futures. No child belongs in prison; The horrors of Don Dale are an endless memory of it. If a child is in prison, it is because the government has failed to provide holistic and culturally secure support for them and their families. This is because our children are being pushed into the judiciary beyond the police force, deliberately and because of racism, disadvantage and poverty. It is the legacy of colonization.
Since the forcible establishment of this nation, Aboriginal children and Torres Strait Islander children have been incarcerated, ill-treated and died in custody. Boys under the age of 16 were imprisoned and died from 1838 in Wadjemup Prison (Rottnest Island), a prison built specifically for Aboriginal people and the largest prison fatality in Australia.
In 1983, John Pat was only 16 years old when he was found dead at a police station. This sparked the royal commission on Aboriginal deaths in custody, whose recommendations were not implemented 30 years later. GJ Roe was only eleven years old when he died under police curfew in Carnarvon in 1997. In 2018, Christopher Drage and Trisjack Simpson were only 16 and 17 years old when they died in Perth’s Swan River while being followed by police. There is no peace for their families until there is justice and accountability for the death of their children.
I was thinking of these families last week when 31 United Nations member states condemned Australia’s treatment of First Nations people and recommended that the age of criminal liability be raised to at least 14 years during the United Nations Universal Periodic Review.
If Australia had done this decades ago, these children might still be alive because we know that the sooner a child is caught in justice, the more contact they will have with police and prisons. For this reason, raising the age of children is a step that all Australian governments could take immediately to alleviate the injustice of the excessive incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children immediately and for generations to come.
The United Nations has urged Australia to consider the established medical science that supports this. The ACT and NT governments are committed to increasing the age, but we still have to take action. Last year, the attorney general announced that the age-increase investigation had been delayed due to a lack of understanding of alternatives to detention.
But there are so many Aboriginal-led solutions, diversion and bail-out programs, and community justice initiatives. There are recommendations for change that date back to the royal commission 30 years ago. More recently, the findings of the Royal Commission of the Northern Territory and the Ngaga-dji report of the Koori Youth Council (hear me) contained many culturally safe solutions.
The Aboriginal Legal Service’s youth engagement program in Western Australia has lifted more than 150 children out of the quicksand of the justice system. The judicial reinvestment in Bourke, New South Wales has proven successful. Student retention by year 12 increased 31% and fees for the top five crimes for young people were reduced by 38%. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives were not further funded, such as the Balit Ngulu youth rights service of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services, which achieved strong results.
We know that our children shine when connected to culture, country and community. Instead of building prisons in which children are abused and harmed for life, we need governments to build the future.
Over-liability and deaths in custody remain the legacy of our history, built into the bedrock of this land on the blood and bones of our people since colonization. Until that changes, there is nothing to celebrate on January 26th or any other date. We cannot allow the fetters of our past to hang around the neck of our future.
• • Roxanne Moore, Noongar woman, is the executive director of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s legal department
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