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Youth Justice Shake-Up after Abuse Inquiry in Australia

  • Phil Mercer

This frame grab from Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) Four Corners program broadcast in Australia on July 25, 2016 and released on July 26, 2016 allegedly shows a teenage boy hooded and strapped into a chair at a youth detention center in the Northern Territory city of Darwin.

An inquiry in Australia is recommending the closure of a youth detention center involved in an abuse scandal that shocked the nation. Images of inmates being mistreated - including one teenage boy who was restrained and placed in a spit hood - were shown last year.

Last year, a TV documentary showed images of young detainees being tear-gassed and strip-searched in youth detention facilities in Australia’s Northern Territory.

The scandal prompted the authorities to set a royal commission, the highest form of inquiry in Australia.

Its final report contains more than 2,500 pages and demands sweeping changes to address the "shocking and systemic failures” in the Territory’s youth justice system. A teenage detainee told the investigating team that he had been deprived of food, repeatedly strip-searched and stopped from using a toilet during his detention. He said he was forced to defecate into a pillowcase.

The report said that the system’s failures had happened "over many years and were known and ignored at the highest levels".

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner is promising to act on the proposals.

“I am sorry [for] the stories that will live on in those children who were in our care, children that we have failed because our youth justice and child protection systems are supposed to make our kids better, not break them,” he said.

The report calls for an end to detention for children aged under 14 in the Northern Territory, prohibiting the use of tear gas and force on child inmates and a move away from punishment to therapy and rehabilitation.

The Northern Territory's notorious Don Dale youth detention center, where much of the mistreatment of child inmates took place, should also be closed the report says.

Margaret White, one of the commissioners, said more humane alternative accommodation should take its place.

“The point must be met that there will be some young people who must be kept in secure detention either because of the extreme seriousness of the crimes that they commit, or because of their own complex needs, and we have recommended a small, secure facility. We do not want any more than 12 beds in any one facility,” she said.

Most of the teenage inmates in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal Australians, who are significantly over-represented in the justice system. The children who were tear-gassed have said they feared for their lives and still suffer disturbing flashbacks and nightmares.

Lawyers said detaining children in isolation was also a clear violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture.

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