If incarceration made us safer, Queensland would be the safest state. Instead we are violating children’s human rights | Queensland


Reports about the treatment of children in Queensland watch houses are shameful

Mon 22 Jan 2024 02.42 CET

Reports about the treatment of children in Queensland watch houses are nothing short of shameful.

Just this week, the police union president, Ian Leavers, stated his very real concerns that the impact of overcrowding in watch houses and the blatant violation of human rights are a “death in custody waiting to happen”. Surprisingly perhaps, on this occasion, I find myself in agreement with Leavers.

The routine denial of children’s human rights in the name of community safety is dangerous, and accepting the inhumane treatment of children who have been arrested is outright unacceptable – shame on anyone who believes it is.

For our justice system to be effective, we must recognise the rights of young people in conflict with the law and the rights of victims of crime are not mutually exclusive. We must insist our justice system promotes and protects the human rights of both to achieve a just outcome. We need a system that restores safety and repairs harm, rather than creating it – as ours currently does.

Let’s return to a place of agreement, the values we espouse as quintessentially Australian. Where children are loved and valued. Where they experience the joy of play and imagination. They are healthy, hopeful and live free from violence, disadvantage and the burden of grown-up problems.

They learn in good schools and find connection in communities that care about them. They have food, shelter and safety and experience dignity, belonging and justice. This is something we want unconditionally for all children, without exception, right?

There is something powerful and comfortable in embracing the sentiment that our children are our future. But to realise this promise requires much more than the repetition of a cliche. We must be prepared to back our sentiment with action, as a nation that purportedly promotes and protects the rights of all our children.

When I reflect on those values in the context of the current situation for children in watch houses, I see a dangerous complacency in how our values align with our behaviour.

Nelson Mandela proclaimed, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” If we truly subscribe to that notion, we should easily pass that test, without exception. However, if the headlines, the social media commentary, and the dominant political discourse about children are measures of who we are as a society, then I say we are failing, emphatically.

So, when do we decide that the test is no longer valid or that our long-espoused values are no longer valuable and can be set aside? What are the “exceptions” that apply or the conditions that we place on the usefulness of this as a measure of our society’s soul?

When the child is poor?

When they don’t have a home?

When they don’t look like our children?

When they don’t behave as we expect them to?

When they have made choices we don’t agree with?

When they have committed a crime?

What circumstance of any child renders them unworthy of basic, fundamental human rights or justifies the abandonment of our values?

While I absolutely share concerns about the level of risk in the behaviour of some young people, to achieve safety for all in our communities, we must be prepared to let go of the flawed foundations, assumptions and fallacies that underpin the tough-on-crime playbook.

Corrective systems correct nothing. Incarceration of children in overcrowded watch houses and detention centres reinforces their sense of isolation and social rejection.

Our state has the highest incarceration rate of young people in the country. If it was in any way an effective strategy to reduce youth crime, it would not consistently produce a 90% recidivism rate. If incarceration made us safer, Queensland would be the safest state in Australia, yet the only race we’re winning is the one to the bottom.

Children who continue to be in conflict with the law often come from families that experience the most profound disadvantage in our society. Overwhelmingly, the children are contending with health problems, often undiagnosed or inadequately supported disabilities, have lived with family violence and a range of adverse childhood experiences.

A further common characteristic among many young people in these circumstances is an experience of being failed or overlooked by those systems designed to support and protect them.

A just outcome is more likely when the rights and lived experiences of victims and young people who have committed offences are acknowledged and when restitution, healing and rehabilitation are provided.

Justice is not served by the conscious violation of child rights marketed as an acceptable consequence. A mature society does not deprioritise certain rights because a child has done the wrong thing or made bad choices. They are not less deserving by virtue of being poor, nor being detained in a police watch house.

I am not advocating that a “free pass” be given but that help is given in equal measure to support young people in trouble to change course. To recognise they are children and that their current circumstances do not allow us to opt out from upholding our values nor from upholding their rights.

Without meaningful opportunities for restoration and rehabilitation, the trajectory, as you all know, is pretty much set, and that’s not justice for anyone.

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