New South Wales should move away from lengthy school suspensions to prevent troubled children from being put at greater risk of committing crime, according to a new report on the juvenile justice system.

Last year 12,355 students in NSW received long suspensions of up to 20 days.

More than a quarter of the students were indigenous.

A report released today by the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People (ACYP) found that one of the biggest problems for students was disruptions to their education.

The report includes 260 interviews with children and young people in NSW juvenile detention centres.

“They suspended me like all the time, the longest was 65 days,” said a young man.

Another said: “When you get suspended from school you have nothing else to do [but] walk the streets.

“Mom and that wasn’t there for us… Kicking us out of school is basically telling us to do whatever we want.”

Cobham Juvenile Justice Center
A corridor inside the Cobham Juvenile Justice Center in NSW.(ABC News: Lindy Kerin)

Aboriginal child welfare body AbSec chief executive Tim Ireland said the rate of prolonged school suspensions “should be alarming” to the New South Wales government.

He said it should focus on “giving Aboriginal youth something to do within the community that is positive and keeps them connected.”

Research from the US and Australia pointed to a “school to prison pipeline” in which suspension leads to marginalized youth who are more likely to commit crimes.

The Australian Institute of Criminology in 2017 called for a review of the approach.

That was repeated last September when a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry recommended the abolition of unsupervised school suspensions.

But more than a year later, the NSW Department of Education is still reviewing its policies.

‘Too many lockdowns’

The report published today was written by Andrew Johnson, a former aid worker, who is urging the NSW government to look at alternatives to long suspensions, including expanding special suspension centres.

“They are our nieces, our nephews, our next-door neighbors,” she said.

“What’s different is that they’ve been through extraordinary circumstances.”

As the New South Wales Ombudsman for Children and Young People, Mr. Johnson occupies an independent role, providing advice to Parliament.

On his tours of the centers, he heard many complaints about the time they spend in lockdown, with the children locked in what he calls “pretty small rooms.”

“I think it would surprise some members of society to see what their rooms look like,” he said.

The children, many of whom have mental health problems and a history of abuse, commonly told her that they did not want to be left alone with their thoughts for long.

A man with glasses at an office desk.
New South Wales Children and Youth Advocate Andrew Johnson.(ABC News: Greg Miskelly)

Too often, they miss counseling or activities at night, on weekends and during school holidays, according to the report.

“There are too many lockdowns,” said a young man.

“Once in the morning after breakfast, then before lunch, and after lunch for two hours or so, then before dinner, then after dinner.”

Johnson said Juvenile Justice was taking steps to reduce isolation, but needed to invest more in staff and programs to make that happen.

Their recommendations include raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, which would bring NSW in line with many other countries in the world.

He has also called for more flexible bail conditions so that children with unstable housing are not unnecessarily detained for violations.

On Tuesday, Community Services Minister Gareth Ward announced a series of new measures in response to the Frank Baxter Center riot in July, including security updates, new detainee classifications, and high-risk units.

“Our government’s success in diverting youth from the system has resulted in a 40 percent decline in arrests over the past decade,” Ward said.

‘Quicksand’ criminal justice system

Johnson has praised the government’s diversionary work, but incarceration of Indians remains dramatically high.

Forty-eight percent of those detained are Indigenous, a hearing of parliamentary estimates was reported in September, despite the fact that Indigenous people make up 3.5 percent of the New South Wales population.

Indigenous people interviewed told Mr. Johnson that they were more responsive to in-school and in-custody programs run by members of their own community.

“We have to stop them before they get caught up in the quicksand of the criminal justice system,” said Karly Warner, chief executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service, NSW/ACT.

A woman with long brown hair on a peach colored background.
Karly Warner, executive director of the Aboriginal Legal Service.(ABC News: Patrick Begley)

Ms Warner has backed calls in Mr Johnson’s report to expand the specialist Koori Youth Court and invest more in Aboriginal-controlled children’s programmes.

“When you take children from their families and communities and put them in danger, in juvenile justice settings or prisons, you are taking them out of their key cultural protection factor.”

At the end of his interviews with children and young people in Juvenile Justice, Mr. Johnson says that “the most surprising thing is that they want to get their lives back on track.”

“They’re saying, ‘you know what, I want all the help I can get,’ and all we have to do is respond to that.”

As one young man told him: “We have to learn from our mistakes. I just wish we had more opportunities.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *