Black Lives Matter – let’s show we are listening by protecting the human rights of our children

Rebecca Vassarotti 17 June 2020 8
Child behind wire

There is a much higher likelihood that children who commit offences have themselves been exposed to crime, violence and homelessness. Photo: File.

The confronting revelations of police brutality in the United States this year have also brought Australia’s record of black deaths in custody into focus. While a terrible reality for many First Nations people, many non-Indigenous Australians have been shockingly ignorant of the high number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died while in custody.

While we have been able to comfort ourselves that a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody that handed down its report in 1991, many of us somehow missed that death rates have escalated since the time of the Commission, with over 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait people dying while in custody, with no one prosecuted for these deaths.

Now we can’t say we don’t know. We can no longer ignore the evidence that we have a major issue with institutional racism and discrimination which leads to unacceptable and disproportionate rates of interaction with our police forces, high levels of arrest, and a significant over-representation of First Nations people in our criminal justice system.

We must recognise that this has led to the deaths of far too many First Nations people and work out what we can do to reduce the level of engagement with the criminal justice system. In addition to listening, learning and creating space for First Nations people’s voices, we must also use our voice to raise issues and demand action.

If we want to stop the high rates of First Nations people in detention, a good start would be to stop locking up children.

Currently, here in the ACT and across Australia, children as young as 10 can be picked up by police, hauled before a court and locked up in youth detention centres. This is despite strong evidence that children’s brains at this age have not yet developed the capacity to understand criminal responsibility. According to the Australian Medical Association, locking up children causes harm.

They point out that children who are forced into contact with the criminal justice system are less likely to complete their education or find employment, and are more likely to die an early death.

Our approach here in Canberra and across Australia is at odds with the United Nations, which is calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to age 14 or higher, and recommending that children under the age of 16 should not be deprived of liberty.

We know that offending by children and young people is linked to poverty and disadvantage. There is a much higher likelihood that children who commit offences have themselves been exposed to crime, violence and homelessness. We know these children and young people are more likely to have experienced child abuse and neglect. We also know that early contact with criminal justice system can lead to chronic, long term offending due to exposure to harmful environments and isolation from family and social supports.

Proportionally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are detained in youth detention centres at far higher rates than their non-Indigenous counterparts. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people aged 10 to 17 were 21 times as likely as young non-Indigenous Australians to be in detention.

There has been discussion for a number of years on the age of criminal responsibility, with the issue most recently in the spotlight in February this year with the establishment of a COAG working group to examine the issue. While this group is still scheduled to meet and report, the future of these processes is unclear with the recent announcement of the Prime Minister to abolish COAG and replace it with the National Cabinet.

Given this uncertainty, and the urgent need to move to dismantle structures that we know are discriminatory and can trigger a path to chronic offending, surely it’s time for us to show leadership in the ACT. Let’s immediately move towards meeting our human rights obligations towards children and increase the age of criminal responsibility to 14. Let’s stop spending money sending our children to youth detention and instead invest it in addressing the issues that have led to their offending.

Changing the age of criminal responsibility will not solve all the issues that lead to poorer outcomes for First Nations people in this community and high incarceration rates. We also need to focus on early intervention and particularly work to reduce the high levels of contact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have with the Care and Protection System and reducing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being removed from their families.

We need to focus on justice reinvestment to create a better normal for our whole community. However, it’s a good start that recognises the importance of supporting all young people to reach their potential.

I think its time to increase the age of criminal responsibility in line with evidence and human rights obligations. What do you think?

Rebecca Vassarotti is an ACT Green’s candidate for Kurrajong in the upcoming ACT Territory Election.


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8 Responses to Black Lives Matter – let’s show we are listening by protecting the human rights of our children
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noid noid 8:05 pm 19 Jun 20

Just view Alice Springs Councillor and the Indigenous leader and Director of Indigenous Research at the Centre for Independent Studies Jacinta Nampijinpa Prices response to this sought of comment. If we really want to have any chance of improving on this problem some uncomfortable truths need to be acknowledged. https://www.facebook.com/JacintaNPrice/posts/2555531678041196

Spiral Spiral 5:14 pm 18 Jun 20

According to the “Statistical Bulletin 17” dated February 2019 and released by the Australian Government’s Australian Institute of Criminology, since around 2004, indigenous people in custody are less likely to die than non-indigenous people.

But this doesn’t seem to be something the general public is aware of. Perhaps Rebecca, as part of the emphasis on “Truth” you can help make this more publicly know.

Though I’d guess not

    notsure1agreewiththat notsure1agreewiththat 3:48 pm 20 Jun 20

    That’s an interesting bulletin and there do appear to be some positive trends, which is something to be grateful for. But surely you are quoting very selectively? You don’t need to get far into that report to see that indigenous people are still very over-represented in deaths in custody by proportion of population. And indeed, the graph on page 4 clearly shows the death rates are pretty similar.

    Here is the first sentence from the conclusion: “In 1991, the RCIADIC concluded Indigenous people were no more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people but were significantly more likely to be arrested and imprisoned. The same remains true today”

    I don’t think that’s anything to be proud of.

John Hutch John Hutch 12:05 pm 18 Jun 20

There’s no denying that there is a higher rate of incarceration for indigenous Australians. People aren’t convicted of crimes unless there are actually reasons for the judgments to be handed down by the justice system, so I wouldn’t go as far to claim institutional racism and discrimination. I also disagree with the victim and oppression mentality projection that seems to be pushed for political agenda purposes and find it as toxic as other forms of discrimination.

But it is an issue to prevent indigenous youth and indigenous from becoming involved with the justice system. The core issues would be issues like poverty, disharmonious family life and bad company of friends.

More involvement in assisting indigenous families and the manner in which indigenous youth are dealt with by the justice system could help the societal issues. Youth programs, mentorship, sport involvement and other forms of societal inclusion would be helpful. If it can be done with NDIS, then that’s something that can be done in other areas. I want to see indigenous people being successful in the communities.

chewy14 chewy14 8:16 am 18 Jun 20

The misuse and either ignorant or deliberate misunderstanding of the data is this area is appalling.

“since the time of the Commission, with over 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait people dying while in custody, with no one prosecuted for these deaths.”

Because almost exclusively, there was no (even potential) crime committed.
You’re conflating both deaths in police custody and prison, including deaths of all causes, including the vast majority that are due to natural causes, alcohol and drug abuse or suicide. The actual data shows that non Indigenous people are more likely to die in custody now than Indigenous as a proportion of those taken into custody.

“Now we can’t say we don’t know. We can no longer ignore the evidence that we have a major issue with institutional racism and discrimination”

Except you haven’t provided a shred of evidence showing any such thing.

The almost exclusive cause of the higher incarceration rates of our Indigenous population is because they commit significantly more crimes and recidivism rates are far higher.

Largely due to socioeconomic factors.

So we don’t fix the problem by not arresting criminals or not sending them to jail, we don’t fix it by increasingly treating Indigenous people differently (which is the actual racism here).

We fix it by treating people as individuals, we fix it by providing opportunities in education, training and increased social support to needy areas regardless of race.
Diversionary programs and justice reinvestment can assist but they aren’t the main solutions.

We need to give people equal opportunities but we commensurately need to have equal expectations. To not do so here is racism by the actual definition of the word.

    notsure1agreewiththat notsure1agreewiththat 4:06 pm 20 Jun 20

    I’m not sure whether you’re serious in trying to argue that Rebecca needs to give evidence for every assertion she makes in an opinion piece. I don’t dispute the facts that most of the deaths are recorded as accidental, natural causes etc. But indigenous people are over-represented in prison populations, and you seem to be arguing that it’s essentially because lots of them are criminals. I think that’s simplistic, totally ignoring the complexity you’ve alluded to, and really offensive.

    Here’s some Australian research, giving one example of why they end up in the criminal justice system more than non-indigenous people:
    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/10/nsw-police-pursue-80-of-indigenous-people-caught-with-cannabis-through-courts
    TL;DR – NSW police DON’T pursue 80% of non-indigenous people caught with cannabis, it’s far less.

    This is a complex issue, and I’m not pretending to be an expert. But I totally disagree with most of your assertions. “they commit significantly more crimes” – read the article I referenced. “recidivism rates are far higher” – I did some research into that, but I don’t think it’s the point. How do you fix that by “treating people as individuals” when they face systemic discrimination in many areas?

    “We need to give people equal opportunities but we commensurately need to have equal expectations. To not do so here is racism by the actual definition of the word.”. That’s just an appalling thing to say. What “equal opportunities” is Australia giving to those indigenous Australians who may be poor, unemployed, and discriminated against in myriad ways? I’m white, I know can’t speak for indigenous Australians, but your attitude comes across to me as “it’s important that we arrest anyone breaking the law without really considering why it is that people break laws in the first place”. Why don’t we try for better outcomes? I think that’s Rebecca’s point.

    chewy14 chewy14 9:08 pm 20 Jun 20

    I would think that if you want to claim things, particularly something as big as systemic racism, you would provide some actual evidence.

    “you seem to be arguing that it’s essentially because lots of them are criminals”

    I’m not arguing it as there’s nothing to argue. It’s true.

    The fact that people like yourself want to ignore it is never going to change things.

    Now of course we need to actually address the root causes of why that is but it doesnt change reality.

    Rebecca’s point isn’t that we should try for better outcomes, it’s that we should treat Indigenous people different because they’re Indigenous.

    It’s a position that seeks equality of outcome over equality of opportunity.

    And that’s far more offensive than anything I’ve said.

Acton Acton 7:47 am 18 Jun 20

No. Raising the age of criminality to 14 will not reduce crime, which is the reason for incarceration, only hide it. Nor will it protect children from being subjected to horrific abuse within their own family and community, which spirals into a life of hopelessness and anti-social behaviour. One way to break the cycle was to remove children at risk from the community, but that created the stolen generation.

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