Victorian Ombudsman rejects placing minors in adult prison

December 12, 2013 |

Justice advocacy groups Smart Justice, Smart Justice For Young People and the Centre for the Human Rights of Imprisoned People have welcomed a report by the Victorian Ombudsman calling for a halt to the transfer of children from the youth justice system to adult prison. The report was tabled in State Parliament today.

“This an investigation of urgent importance because the practice of placing children in solitary confinement in adult prison remains in place. Yet the Ombudsman has concluded there are no circumstances that justify the placement of a child in the adult prison system. We call on the Victorian Government to remove any children currently in adult prison, to prevent future placements, and to respond fully and effectively to the Ombudsman’s recommendations,” said Tiffany Overall, spokesperson for Smart Justice For Young People, today.

“The report has shone a powerful light on a situation that is fundamentally unacceptable – that Victoria is a state where a child can be put for extended periods in maximum security, solitary confinement in an adult prison,” she said.

“That children can be placed in adult prison must now be rejected out-of-hand as an acceptable option. This report underlines the vital distinction between children who are placed in detention, and adult prisoners,” said Michelle McDonnell, Smart Justice spokesperson, today.

Chantelle Higgs, from the Centre for the Human Rights of Imprisoned People, who has worked directly with young people who have been moved into the adult prison system and solitary confinement for long periods of time, some for more than a year, said: “I have watched the severe and debilitating deterioration of young people’s mental and physical health. They lose not only their hope and belief but are stripped of their humanity. Many young people fail to recover from their experiences ever. As it is impossible for these young people to speak for themselves in relation to the harm they are experiencing, I commend the work of the Ombudsman in this important area”.

The Ombudsman has made three recommendations that have so far met with a qualified response from government.

In response to a proposal for legislative change to prevent the placement of children in adult prison, the Department of Human Services maintains that “legislative flexibility is required in the context of current capacity constraints”.

“It is never acceptable that a child’s mental and physical well-being, or their human rights, are placed at risk due to the inadequacies of a system that fails to protect their best interests. We need to look not only to capacity issues, but in the first instance to rehabilitate and divert children from the justice system,” Ms Overall said.

In a second recommendation, the Ombudsman said the age of detainees should be checked to avoid the incorrect remand of children to adult prison.

“We urge the government to implement robust and thorough age checks to ensure young people are not incorrectly placed,” Ms McDonnell said.

The Ombudsman’s third recommendation to remove the Office of Correctional Services Review from the Department of Justice was met with an undertaking by the minister to “consider” this measure.

“We have long called for independent scrutiny of the corrections system, and this report once again reinforces the need for that,” Ms McDonnell said.

The groups called for far greater transparency around data relating to young people in detention, and an urgent need to ensure all young people were connected to advocacy and legal representation where required.

“Many children in the youth justice system have a background in child protection. They’re extremely vulnerable – we need to acknowledge their trauma as we work to reduce reoffending, not subject them to further serious risk, such as we have seen in cases where they have been transferred to maximum security solitary confinement in the adult prison system,” Ms Overall concluded.

The report follows 2012 revelations that minors were transferred from the youth justice system to maximum security solitary confinement, in contravention of human rights and at the risk of serious physical and mental harm to the children concerned.