An Amnesty International research report released today finds Western Australia incarcerates Indigenous young people at the highest rates in Australia - and those rates are rising.

The report ‘There is always a brighter future: Keeping Indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Western Australia’, was three years in the making, and includes research in Albany, Bunbury, Perth, Kalgoorlie, Geraldton, Broome, Mowanjum, Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek and Kununurra.

National crisis

It finds Indigenous young people in WA are an astonishing 52 times more likely to be in detention than their non-Indigenous peers. This is more than twice the national rate of overrepresentation in Australia.

Nationally, Indigenous young people are 24 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous young people, as detailed in Amnesty International’s report on the national situation earlier this month.

“The overrepresentation of Indigenous children in detention around Australia is already a national crisis - it’s shameful that this is twice as bad here in WA,” said Claire Mallinson, National Director of Amnesty International Australia.

Indigenous young people make up just over six per cent of 10–17 year-olds in WA, but they make up more than three quarters, or 79 per cent, of the young people in detention. Furthermore, the overrepresentation of Indigenous young people in detention in WA is increasing and is the highest it has been in five years.

Another lost generation

“WA has a long and tragic history of removing Aboriginal children from their families and communities, a history that is sadly repeating. We will see another generation lost to failed Government policies unless this government gets smarter about this, and fast,” said Claire Mallinson.

“We all want to make WA communities safer. We all want to keep children safe. Locking them up has been shown not to be the solution and must truly be a last resort.”

The report finds the reasons for the staggering rates of WA Aboriginal youth detention include a failure to adequately support Aboriginal community led programs at the early stages of contact with the justice system; police discrepancies in giving cautions; strict monitoring and enforcement of bail conditions; mandatory sentencing; and inadequate diagnosis and support for those who have Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Underlying these may be issues of homelessness and overcrowding, family insecurity, poverty, cultural disconnection and substance misuse.

We all want to make WA communities safer. We all want to keep children safe. Locking them up has been shown not to be the solution and must truly be a last resort.

Claire Mallinson, Amnesty International

Amnesty International’s research found WA police, when coming into contact with children committing an alleged offence, were much more likely to arrest Aboriginal children than non-Aboriginal children. Police arrest Aboriginal young people two thirds, or 66 per cent, of the time, whereas they arrest non-Aboriginal young people closer to one third, or 41 per cent, of the time.

End mandatory sentencing

The report also recommends the end of mandatory sentencing of young people, which only contributes to increasing detention without reducing youth crime. WA is the only jurisdiction in the country where mandatory minimum sentences apply to children, contrary to international law.

Amnesty is calling for the Home Burglary Bill currently before the WA Legislative Council to be amended so as not to include children. The Bill would expand WA’s mandatory sentencing regime so that even more 16 and 17 year olds are caught in its net. It would result in more young people missing the last chance for rehabilitation before they transition to adult corrections, and there is no evidence it will reduce home burglaries.

Aboriginal-led solutions must be supported

The report launched today has a strong focus on solutions. It finds a number of Aboriginal-led programs around WA, such as the Yiriman Project in the Kimberley and Nowanup in Albany, have shown great promise in supporting and rehabilitating Aboriginal children. Amnesty International urges the WA Government to support and fund these Aboriginal-led approaches, to address the root causes of crime at the earliest possible stage.

Justice reinvestment

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The organisation also recommends WA adopt the Justice Reinvestment approach, investing spending in communities instead of prisons. Justice Reinvestment has proved very successful in the US for keeping people out of prison while making communities safer.

“WA spent over $36 million on locking up Aboriginal children last financial year - and this would skyrocket under the proposed changes to mandatory sentencing. WA needs to reinvest that money in supporting Aboriginal families, and preventing crime in the first place. Community safety would be far improved, and children could remain with their families and communities where they belong,” said Claire Mallinson.