Government’s practice of holding children in watch houses ‘a risk to public safety’

A youth advocate group is urging the Queensland Government to swiftly act to limit lengthy stays and  number of young people held in police watch houses.


Mar 20, 2024, updated Mar 20, 2024
The entry to the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre in Brisbane. (AAP Image/Darren England)

The entry to the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre in Brisbane. (AAP Image/Darren England)

The concerns are contained in the Youth Advocacy Centre (YAC)’s second submission to the parliamentary Youth Justice Reform Select Committee saying young people’s human rights are being breached in “terrible conditions”.

“…Urgent action to limit the practice of holding children in police watch houses is critical to effective youth justice reform,’’ the submission said.

The bipartisan committee was established last October to examine ongoing reforms to the youth justice system and support victims of crime.

YAC said the state government’s practice of holding children and young people in adult watch houses for up to four weeks is “shameful and reduces community safety”.

“These young people emerge angry, traumatised, and further entrenched on a criminal path,’’ the YAC submission stated which was lodged on Monday.

As of this week, there are 66 young people in adult watch houses across Queensland with numbers ballooning to 96 in February, the submission said.

The submission also said Queensland Police Service (QPS) watch house staff are not trained to deal with children and “understandably, can get frustrated with poor behaviour”.

“I don’t envy their job because you know, the kids are abusing, hurling abuse at them and yelling at them. (Young people) should be in an environment that is encouraging rehabilitation,’’ YAC Chief Executive Officer Katherine Hayes said.

Queensland Youth Justice Minister Di Farmer said the government takes the concerns about watch houses seriously but “makes no apology” for putting young offenders in watch houses if it’s required to keep the community safe.

A QPS spokesperson said the service remains  committed to ensuring that young people ordered into custody by a court spend the least amount of time possible in a watch house, before going to a youth detention centre.

Ms Hayes, who is also a lawyer and member of the government’s Youth Justice Reference Group Subcommittee on Watch houses, told InQueensland crowded watch houses girls had limited or no privacy and young people are exposed to adult prisoners.

She said they have no access to fresh air or light.

Ms Hayes said the government was breaching its own duty care by willingly allowing the breaching of young people’s human rights while detained in the state’s watch houses.

“It’s for political gain, because there’s absolutely no sympathy for these young people. Some of them have done awful things, there’s no doubt about it but there’s just a real demonisation of young people and this I think, has given an implicit endorsement to treat these kids in this way,’’ she said.

The numbers of young people in watch houses and detention centres peaking around the summer school holiday period was “foreseeable and predictable” and had occurred last year, she said.

Ms Hayes said despite all the contact with government, it is “knowingly prepared to treat these kids like this, because it’s focused on the political outcome of winning the election”.

Ms Hayes also said staff shortages at some youth detention centres meant young people are being locked down with limited access to rehabilitation and programs.

She said many of the young people leaving the detention centres have 72 hours of support post-release, which is not long enough to prepare them for life back in the community.

“I think that if we focus on that period, of rehabilitation, inside the detention centre and then reintegration after detention, we’d see a lot more success’’ she said.

A QPS spokesman said the service works closely with the Department of Youth Justice and once advised of an available position, the young person is conveyed to the detention centre as soon as possible.

“When in QPS custody, young people are visited by organisations and Government agencies to ensure their welfare needs are met.

“Due to the fluctuations of young people coming into custody and being transferred to youth detention facilities, QPS is unable to predict the number of young people who will be in custody at future dates,’’ the QPS spokesperson said in a statement.

Youth Justice Minister Di Farmer said young people are held in watch houses as part of normal processing following arrest and if they are not released on bail, they remain there until they can be admitted to a youth detention centre (YDC).

“At times, youth detention centres operate at full capacity – meaning young people can be held in watch houses until a detention centre bed becomes available.

“The Department of Youth Justice completes daily assessments of all young people in watch houses, to ensure those most vulnerable are prioritised for YDC admission. This process also ensures YDC bed use is optimised across the state,’’ she said.

Young people remain detained in watch houses awaiting YDC admission are provided a range of supports and services from departmental staff and funded services, she said.

A government spokesperson said both the Youth Justice Department and Ms Farmer have met with stakeholders including Ms Hayes in January and February.

“These meeting took place prior to and after Christmas to ensure practical solutions and services are delivered which keep the community and young people in custody safe,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said in January Minister Farmer discussed with Ms Hayes and the provision of services to watch houses and the difficulties created by the closure of the Children’s Court and legal fraternity going on leave over the holiday season.

“Across Queensland, Youth Justice works with QPS and other agencies, including Health and Education, to support the safety and wellbeing of young people in watch houses…’’ the spokesperson said.

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