Court Rules Teenagers in Adult Jail Unlawful
11 May 2017 at 3:15 pm
The detention of teenagers at a Victorian maximum security prison has been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court – for the second time.
In the judgement handed down on Thursday, Justice John Dixon said the detention infringed on the young people’s human rights and they should be returned to juvenile detention.
The court was asked to rule on whether the Victorian government had breached the law in moving children from juvenile facilities to the maximum security adult prison at Barwon.
Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) lawyer, Alina Leikin, who took the government to court on behalf of 15 adolescents, said the government’s decision to jail children in a maximum security adult prison was “a mistake”.
“We need to focus on showing these teenagers that better alternatives exist so they can learn from their mistakes and become productive members of our community. It shouldn’t take a Supreme Court case for the government to do the right thing and treat kids humanely,” Leikin said.
The Victorian government lost an earlier Supreme Court case and its subsequent appeal in December last year. At the time the government reclassified a unit in Barwon Prison as a youth facility.
This prompted the HRLC to file the further challenge, which began in April 2017.
Leikin said the case had already helped to achieve positive outcomes for children, including a significant drop in the number of children detained at Barwon, the transfer of many of the centre’s clients to normal youth justice facilities and changes to the worst conditions.
“This case has shone a spotlight on the harmful conditions at Barwon and the government has scrambled to fix what it could. Ultimately though, no amount of rebranding or coats of paint can change the fact that Barwon prison is manifestly unfit for children,” Leikin said.
Leikin said locking up kids in an adult prison was a “serious stain” on Victoria’s otherwise good record of achieving some of the lowest youth crime and youth imprisonment rates in Australia.
“These kids are 15, 16 and 17 years old. Many have been exposed to family violence, abuse, trauma and neglect. Yes, they’ve made some terrible mistakes, but locking them up in a maximum security adult prison is not the answer. The Victorian government needs to learn from the abuses at places like Don Dale and ensure children are treated humanely and in ways that will maximise their chances of leading a normal life when they are released,” Leikin said.
The HRLC said the government told the Supreme Court last December that the only reason it needed to send children to Barwon was because of the loss of 60 beds at Parkville following the riot damage last November.
“The government gave evidence in the most recent case that the repair works at Parkville would likely be completed in May but that it planned to continue locking up children at Barwon until as late as September,” Leikin said.
CEO of welfare peak body VCOSS, Emma King said it was “a win for justice, fairness and common sense”.
“We shouldn’t need a court to tell us that kids don’t belong in adult prisons. The Victorian government must now accept the court’s judgement and do the right thing,” King said.
“It should immediately make arrangements to put these kids in suitable, age-appropriate accommodation. Adult prisons are no place for kids.”
— VCOSS (@VCOSS) April 6, 2017
Jesuit Social Services welcomed the Supreme Court verdict.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has reiterated what we and others have said for months: that there is no place for children in adult prisons,”Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards said.
Edwards said the HRLC had worked closely with young people in Barwon Prison to have their voices heard, and hoped the verdict was a catalyst for a more humane youth justice system in Victoria.
“We look forward to the government following the court’s direction and ensuring young people are held in age-appropriate facilities staffed by skilled workers to facilitate their rehabilitation,” Edwards said.
She said the government now needed to consult with experts and the community sector as it planned a new 224-bed youth detention facility in Cherry Creek.
“An effective youth detention system must be matched by efforts to prevent crime from occurring in the first place by supporting vulnerable young people to address the underlying issues behind crime, such as disengagement from education, mental illness and drug and alcohol use,” she said.
The Victorian Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos said the government was extremely disappointed by the outcome.
“We will closely consider the court’s decision and we’ll explore all options available to us,” Mikakos said.
“We were faced with extraordinary circumstances after inmates trashed the Parkville Youth Justice facility, leaving 60 beds unusable.
“As we’ve always said, this was a temporary measure to address urgent capacity issues.”