'They said I was headed to the big prison': A new lost generation

DEREK'S friends got him into stealing in his mid-teens.
Derek went to juvinile twice, before he was offered a lifeline. (Image: AIA/Ingetje Tadross)

Emma Reynolds Perth Now 6 June 2014

He was thrown in juvenile detention twice, cut off from his family and missing school, instead surrounded by endless opportunities for further crime.

"It's not easy, you got no family to talk to," he said. "They said, as soon as you hit 18, you'll be heading to the big prison, the man's prison."

Derek was one of the lucky ones. While on parole, his uncle organised for him to do community service and later to work at a tourism organisation on his traditional Aboriginal country in the Kimberley.

"I got back and went to country and that's when I thought, you know, I don't want to go back to the big man house, inside," Derek told Amnesty International. "When I got on country I thought, if you be at the right place, like your own home, you won't feel like stealing no more. I don't feel like heading back that way."

He now works at a local arts centre and helps other young people connect with their culture and traditional country. "I tell them, when you go inside you are not going to school or nothing, you are going into juvie where there are a lot of boys, a lot of crime and stuff, stealing and stuff. I'm telling them ... you don't want to go there."

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty in Bourke. (Image: AIA/Lisa Hogben)

Indigenous children are wildly over represented in detention, incarcerated at 24 times the rate of non-indigenous youth. They make up less than five per cent of the population of 10-17-year-olds, but more than half of those in prison.

An Amnesty report launched this week, "A brighter tomorrow: Keeping indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Australia", shows that Australia is detaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at its highest rate in 20 years.

"By international standards, the incarceration rate of indigenous children is scandalous," Amnesty's global head Salil Shetty told during his trip to Australia to launch the report. "These punitive methods have not worked."

Mr Shetty said it was time to end mandatory sentencing of young people, which only increases the number in detention, without reducing crime.

It costs $440,000 per year to detain a child, a cost that could put a young indigenous person through an entire undergraduate medical degree.

Amnesty International Australia's Tammy Solonec, right, with locals. (Image: AIA/Lisa Hogben)

"Australia is in violation of so many international commitments," added Mr Shetty. "Locking up kids of 10 is shocking.

"It's a serious breach of international ethics."

Even in countries like Mexico, under-12s are not held criminally responsible. Entering the justice system is often a "one-way ticket" for these children, Mr Shetty added, leaving them with few options other than a lifetime as criminals.

Australia comes up for review by the UNHRC in November, and Amnesty's global secretary thinks the nation faces "embarrassment" over on its record on indigenous and refugee issues.

"I've travelled to many deprived parts of the world, and this is much more shocking in Australia, one of the world's richest countries," he said.

Locking up 10-year-olds is out of line with international standards. (Image: Picture: AIA/Lisa Hogben)

Mr Shetty visited Bourke, NSW, this week, where Amnesty is helping set up the first trial of "justice reinvestment" in Australia, to make communities safer and keep indigenous youth out of detention.

The system has had enormous success in Texas, where youth incarceration was reduced by 2800 between 2007 and 2012. This allowed the state to close eight juvenile correctional facilities, while seeing crime drop to its lowest rate since 1974.

Justice reinvestment means partnering with indigenous organisations to invest in communities instead of prisons, and create alternative pathways for young people like Derek. Amnesty are hoping the government will also lend its support to Bourke's Maranguka initiative with Just Reinvest NSW, and others like it.

"Australia has a long and tragic history of removing indigenous children from their families and communities," said Mr Shetty. "We will see another generation lost to failed government policies, unless Australia shows the vision to support and fund indigenous people to be the architects of the solution."