The plan to take thousands of children out of prisons

When you start taking meth at 15, life falls apart. Fast.
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By the time Chea Gardiner spent time in youth detention, he had racked up over 200 criminal charges. To fund his drug addiction, he stole cars, broke into properties, assaulted people and, eventually, started dealing.

Having dropped out of school and been kicked out of home, he eventually wound up at Victoria’s Parkville detention centre – “a pretty shit place” – and decided he wanted to change.

“I was looking at four years if I didn’t go to rehab,” Gardiner, now 19, told Fairfax Media.

But the young Aboriginal man says the system wasn’t set up to give young offenders the best chance of putting things right. He said rehabilitation options to avoid a long stint in detention weren’t readily offered, and children had to actively seek out programs to overcome a punishment-driven environment.

“When you’re that young, you don’t get told what’s going on, you just get thrown in there and off you go,” he said.

Gardiner has been through detox, kept out of trouble for years and is training as a barista. He argues the youth justice system needs to be improved, especially for the youngest offenders.

There is now a nationwide push to divert thousands of children from prison every year.

Currently, the criminal age of responsibility in all Australian states and territories is 10, well below the global average of 12.1. It is also lower than China, Nicaragua, Bahrain and Rwanda.

The recent royal commission into the Northern Territory’s juvenile justice system called for the age to be raised from 10 to 12. The commissioners cited research that shows a lack of maturity and self-reflection at such a young age and pointed to the higher standards in other countries, where juvenile offending by people under 12 is seen as a welfare issue.

A new “plan of action” from the Change the Record coalition goes even further, calling for all states and territories to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

The eight-point plan would also get children who have not been sentenced out of prison, and include justice targets in the Closing the Gap framework.

In 2015-16, 4422 children – the majority indigenous – were imprisoned across Australia, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures.

Under Change the Record’s strategy, the 599 offenders under the age of 14 and the approximately 60 per cent who were not sentenced or awaiting trial would have avoided detention altogether.

“When children enter the system at this young age, they are highly likely to return as adults, especially those who spend time in custody,” the coalition says in its plan. “Time on remand can have a severe and damaging impact on a child, leading to longer term harm and ongoing contact with the justice system.”

A spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the federal government was working closely with states and territories to address the underlying factors behind the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Senator Scullion have committed to strong action following the NT royal commission.

Antoinette Braybrook, co-chair of Change the Record, said: “The youth justice system is failing our children, it is unsafe and requires an urgent overhaul. We have seen children harmed, mistreated and tortured in nearly every state and territory. Enough is enough. It’s time to take action, national action.”

Co-chair Cheryl Axleby said improved community programs and support were needed to stop children “being warehoused in prison rather than governments addressing the reasons that kids are in prison in the first place”.

Amnesty International national director Claire Mallinson said the Change the Record plan would help Mr Turnbull “turn those words into solid policies”.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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