The juvenile justice system is failing our kids

24 Jul 2016

I have been a barrister now for five years and I have worked in various courts for over a decade. I’m one of only about a dozen Indigenous Australians practicing as a barrister in Australia and during my career I have defended a number of Indigenous children in criminal matters.

The most recent case involved a young girl in her mid teens. She had been charged with assaulting a corrections officer. The trial was a bit like what you see on television; on one side of the bar table you have myself, my solicitor and the client and on the other side you have the prosecutor and his team.

The prosecutor called his witnesses, the corrections officer who made the complaint, his colleagues and a number of other inmates. The other inmates were all young Indigenous girls between the ages of 13 to 16. I cross-examined all of the witnesses and piece-by- piece the corrections officers’ stories began to unravel.

Two things amazed me about that trial. First, it was the young Indigenous inmates, who were consistent in their evidence and telling the truth. Secondly, the intellect of my client, when she was finally called to give evidence and then cross-examined by the prosecutor, she was intellectually far superior to him. In fact, she was probably the most intelligent person in the courtroom.

Watching her in the witness box, made me wonder how such an impressive young child wound up in detention. I learned her story a little later down the track. For anyone who has ever defended children in the justice system, her story is like most of the other Indigenous children caught up in a system which aims to punish, deprive and torture them rather than protect, care and rehabilitate them.

Sadly, my client had no hope from the start. She was subjected to unspeakable horrors and abuse as a child and she became trapped in a cycle, in and out of care, petty offending and life on the streets.

In the end we won the case, the Judge accepted that the corrections officers were lying and that the officer who made the complaint had started to choke my client from behind, which was completely unnecessary in the circumstances. The Judge also accepted that my client was well within her rights to defend herself from the aggressive attack.

In my career I have seen all types of cases; children placed in care and subjected to horrible abuse and neglect who then turn to crime, cases involving Indigenous children who were chronically over policed and unnecessarily charged by police – and there are many of those. Then others like the one involving my client where there have been multiple failures. Failures that we should all bear some responsibility in addressing.

The upcoming 4 Corners program will hopefully show the reality of what life inside is like for many of these children. As juvenile detention centres move to recruit more and more officers with military and police backgrounds, who are combat trained and are often desensitised to violence, coupled with less and less focus on pastoral care and cultural values – many children are quite literally living in hell.

In the last twelve months I have heard reports of horrific levels of violence committed against our young people in detention, resulting in broken limbs, psychological abuse and many other serious injuries. The question I always ask myself is why? Especially when we see examples like in the Netherlands where the system is targeted at rehabilitation and social integration, a system so successful the government is closing prisons through lack of use.

The end result is, we have a system that is failing our kids. It is Indigenous children who represent about 80 per-cent of children in custody, who are affected the most.

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