Four Corners exposes youth justice policy failure, and community attitudes behind it

By Stephen Easton

Thursday May 16, 2019

Still image from ABC Four Corners video.

ABC investigative reporter Mark Willacy has not only exposed a major systemic failure of Queensland’s youth justice system, with help from the state police force, but also zeroed in on the community attitudes that may have contributed to it happening.

The Four Corners reporter noticed a lot of people missed the point of this week’s episode: that cells in police stations are risky and ill-suited places to hold children, but many, including some as young as 10, are kept in them as there is nowhere else — sometimes for very long periods and suffering serious injuries and gross indignities as a result.

He found the hard-hearted view that “these kids are animals and they deserve everything they get” was common on social media, and while acknowledging it’s not an accurate reflection of the community, in a companion piece he muses about how this kind of view influences policy.

State ombudsman Phil Clarke is reportedly on the case, only a few months after delivering 17 recommendations to address deficiencies in the management of a crowed Brisbane youth detention centre. Clarke found it was unreasonable the aftermath of a riot to isolate some detainees in “admission rooms” that lacked temperature control, proper ventilation, beds, bathrooms and running water.

Ombudsman Phil Clarke

Ministers have steadfastly denied prior knowledge of the worst cases, when asked about them specifically. They promise a departmental investigation into what they call “new allegations” despite the fact many were reported to public servants by Willacy’s star witness, the state’s Public Guardian Natalie Siegel-Brown. The government was clearly aware of the issue.

Siegel-Brown seems fed up with how little she could achieve through official channels, and senior police officers made the telling decision to allow the ABC’s cameras inside the Brisbane City Watch House to help Willacy illustrate his report. Part of the narrative is that a lot of police officers are very unhappy with the situation as well.

“I tend to ignore the Twitter pile-on because there’s no nuance involved in the debate there, but it’s interesting that it fires up and polarises people and it shows maybe why the politicians haven’t resolved this issue, because it is a polarising debate, so they go one way or the other and there is no grey in between where the debate can happen,” the ABC reporter observed.

As he puts it, “the issue is not about whether these kids should be put in detention, it’s about where they are put in detention” and he’s right to point out that not everyone gets it.

Most politicians are well aware that whatever these children did, or were accused of doing, is irrelevant to the issue, but they are also highly responsive to community concerns about crime and wary of being seen as too weak or too sympathetic towards offenders.

Natalie Siegel-Brown

The other recurring issue with detention centres and correctional facilities is around measures taken in the name of safety, both for people who are detained and those detaining them, and whether they are too harsh and constitute additional punishment.

When the Northern Territory’s Don Dale youth detention centre featured on Four Corners, ABC viewers were introduced to spit hoods; on Monday night we learned about suicide smocks. “The Public Guardian told the program that it was not until vigorous advocacy from her office that children were allowed to wear underwear under the smocks,” Willacy reports.

What does community safety have to do with it?

The problem of where the children are being held has nothing to do with why they are being held, but ministers made sure to repeatedly mention their efforts to address youth crime in responses to the report on Tuesday.

“We are committed to keeping our communities safe and we are committed to changing the life trajectories of the young people in our justice system,” said the Minister for Child Protection and Youth Justice, Dianne Farmer, reading a statement to parliament that got to the Four Corners report in the fourth paragraph.

“In order to do this, we must break the cycle of offending and reoffending by our young people.”

Before responding to the revelations, Farmer repeated how much the government had spent on youth justice reforms and what it planned to spend in future. This includes “new programs to address the reasons that our young people are in the youth justice system in the first place” and new youth detention facilities with space for 48 more young people, 16 in Brisbane and 32 in Wacol.

“In last night’s Four Corners program there were several new allegations raised regarding youth detention,” the minister said.

“I want to assure all members that, as with all matters that have been raised with the department regarding these young people, any new allegations or issues will be thoroughly investigated. No-one wants a young person to be in a watch-house any longer than is absolutely necessary. A watch-house is not an environment I want for our young people.”

She said improving the youth justice system would not be a “quick fix”, before going on to re-announce more measures that are part of the bigger picture, but do not directly address the issue at hand: such as “30 new youth and family workers to be funded in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family wellbeing services in 10 high-demand locations” and further evaluation of that program’s effectiveness.

Later, in question time, the Premier said it was “a very serious policy issue” and was being taken “incredibly seriously” by the government, before going on to repeat that same talking points, attack the opposition’s questionable record in youth justice policy, and remind everyone once again that some children are no angels.

“No-one wants to see young people in watch houses,” Palaszczuk said.

“In fact, it would be wonderful not to see young people in our youth detention centres. However, the reality is that the young people who are there have, in some instances, committed some very serious offences. They include assaults, assaults on police officers, armed robberies and sexual assaults. Of course, it is up to the courts to determine where these young people go.”

Willacy wanted to make sure his story showed “the context that a lot of these kids come from terrible, terrible backgrounds” and the Public Guardian has pointed out a lot of those detained in watch houses have not been found guilty of anything.

“One kid didn’t even want to get out of the watch-house because he told the people from the Office of the Public Guardian ‘my parents smoke ice and things are terrible at home’,” he writes.

Opposition leader Deborah Frecklington suggested the government could rapidly build temporary youth detention facilities in the short term, while it tries to address the state’s burgeoning population of young detainees. The Premier rejects that idea but says the acting director-general of her department, Rachel Hunter, is leading an investigation and will make recommendations.

Who knew what and when?

The main questions that Palaszczuk and her ministers avoided in the wake of the report are around who in government knew what and when.

The opposition asked Mark Ryan, the Minister for both Police and Corrective Services, when he first briefed the Premier about several of the serious incidents reported by the ABC, and Farmer was asked when she was first made aware of them by public servants. Neither gave a straight answer in Tuesday’s question time.

Ryan said everyone from the government to the police and their union was on the same page about the need for “appropriate facilities” to detain young people. His main contribution was to add “these young people have to be detained somewhere” after going back over the investment in new youth detention spaces and early intervention.

Ryan then unhelpfully took an interjection — “Let them out!” — as a chance to argue that freeing the children would only put them and the community at risk, a debating line taken up later by the Premier. He also noted the police were only doing their jobs. It seems that successive governments have not.

Returning to the question at hand, Ryan simply affirmed that ministers were well-briefed by the public servants. Through right-to-information requests, Willacy found that various senior officials, including Department of Premier and Cabinet director-general Dave Stewart, were told of the ongoing issue and at least some of the worst incidents.

In one letter, Siegel-Brown is almost apologising in advance for being an annoyance, suggesting she feared the information was not welcome in the government.

“I receive regular briefings from the commissioner, the Minister for Youth receives regular briefings from her department and the Premier receives regular briefings from her department,” the police minister said. “The approach to youth justice is a whole-of-government response. Every agency is involved in this. That is how we will get answers.”

‘Open and transparent’

Asked whether Siegel-Brown would keep her job after speaking out, the Premier said the Four Corners report demonstrated her government was “open and transparent” as it showed the Public Guardian and the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner were able to look inside watch houses, and so was the ABC to a limited extent.

“Basically the hardest thing with this story was that you cannot identify anyone who has been through the youth justice system in Queensland, so we had to de-identify people in the footage, which we prefer not to do on Four Corners as it can lessen the impact or power of the pictures, but we didn’t want that to stop us getting an important story out,” Willacy reflects.

Keeping the young people unidentified perhaps makes it harder for viewers to sympathise with their unfortunate circumstances, and footage of them at their worst, with blurred faces, could potentially have the opposite effect.

At the same time, this rule allowing young offenders to start adulthood from a blank slate is also a reminder of a key principle of youth justice: children should get every possible chance to change their ways, especially the youngest.

Arthur Moses

Top lawyer Arthur Moses said the revelations “must not be ignored” and called for urgent action.

“Remanding children in such facilities, in any state or territory, is inappropriate, highly disturbing and represents a grave breach of the duty owed by governments to children in their care,” said the Law Council of Australia president, who also noted it put police in a difficult position.

“This practice exposes some of society’s most vulnerable — our children — to significant trauma and to hardened criminals. It is not consistent with Australia’s obligations under international human rights laws and should not be tolerated.”

Other lawyers suggest the practice may well breach Queensland’s own human rights legislation, which only came into effect in late February, codifying “the right to humane treatment in detention” among others.

“The vast majority of children in detention in Queensland are unsentenced and alternatives to detention, including justice reinvestment projects, should be implemented immediately,” added Moses, who pointed to previous “reports of abuse and mistreatment of children in detention” in several other Australian jurisdictions, particularly the report on the NT’s Don Dale centre three years ago.

“It is time our governments — state, territory and Commonwealth — got off the back foot and pro-actively shouldered their obligations and duties to these children. … Governments must take these responsibilities more seriously.”

Moses said the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be raised to at least 12 years nationwide as recommended in 2017 by the Queensland Family and Child Commission. “It also suggested other options, including removing 10-12-year-olds from youth detention centres,” he added.

“Similarly, the NT Royal Commission revealed systemic change to practices in youth detention was essential to protect the rights and welfare of children and recommended raising of the age of criminal responsibility, which the NT government has failed to do.”

There is also the post-colonial subtext: Indigenous people are over-represented in the justice system. Nationally, Indigenous children are 17 times more likely to be locked up than non-Indigenous kids; in Queensland, they are 32 times more likely, according to the Law Council.

The main issue here seems to be a failure to plan ahead, but perhaps community attitudes also play a role as Willacy suggests. Public policy regarding crime and punishment is particularly susceptible to ineffective hard-line approaches because a lot of voters do not appreciate the complex issues involved. While it’s appropriate that politicians are responsive to community attitudes, they must also decide when to lead rather than follow.

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