Gaoling Kids to Make It Safer is Ridiculous, Says ALS’ Karly Warner, as Minns Does Just That

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Gaoling Kids

“Locking up children in prison and thinking that that is going to make communities safer is ridiculous,” said Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT chief executive Karly Warner on 12 March. “This has not worked in a single place that it’s been tried.”

“This is going to make regional communities more dangerous, more unsafe and increase crime,” she added.

But that’s exactly what the NSW Minns government had announced it was up to earlier that day. And the truth of the matter is launching tough-on-youth-crime packages, which in actual fact primarily target First Nations kids, has long been a habit of white men in suits on Macquarie Street.

Premier Chris Minns announced a $26.2 million early intervention and prevention youth crime package, which involved particularly targeted tough-on-youth-crime laws wrapped up in social programs that won’t do much for the kids the laws were passed on 22 March in relation to.

The targeted law sees 14- to 17-year-olds on bail for serious motor theft or break and enter, who commit such offences again then denied bail, while those perpetrating these offences and then posting about it online, face a potential extra two years prison on top of regular maximum penalties.

And to ensure it’s understood that Minns is still a good bloke, regardless of his fixation with imprisoning kids, he jetted up to Moree, a flashpoint of youth crime, to launch a football star mentorship program for at-risk teens. Yet, youth who’ve broken the law are denied participation.

The Indigenous incarceration crisis

“We are here to talk about our children, so many of whom have the odds stacked against them,” Warner said, as she addressed a 15 May youth justice webinar. “Children who deserve support and protection, who are now increasingly the subject of punitive and cruel laws.”

Speaking at the event hosted by NSW Greens MLC Sue Higginson, the Palawa woman set out that “an end to structural and systemic discrimination” against First Nations people, especially children, is needed, and she underscored that “mass incarceration” is not the answer.

But that’s what NSW has got, as the most recent BOCSAR custody figures for March reveal that 31 percent of the state’s adult prisoner population is now comprised of First Nations people, the highest level ever, and they only account for 3 percent of the overall state population.

And when it comes to Indigenous youth, those same kids the premier wants to ensure spend more time inside, 66 percent of the 223 kids in this state’s youth gaols in March were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths, and 78 percent of these children were on remand.

Remand means that a child has either been charged but is yet to be found guilty, or else they’re yet to be sentenced. Many of these children are held prior to case finalisation only to be set free at that point. And Minns has passed laws that ensure many more will be denied bail and remanded.

“Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates, and this cannot be that we have no love for them,” said Warner, referring to high levels of Indigenous child removals in NSW. “And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers, they should be our hope for the future.”

Putting kids in prison

On announcing his youth crime prevention package in March, Minns also made clear to the press that his government had not only determined to lock up more Indigenous youth, but it had also come to the decision to not raise the age of criminal responsibility.

The premier making that point comes on the back of a decade long nationwide campaign to raise the age from 10 to 14, due to the fact that kids aged 10 to 13 are understood not to be able to gauge the concept of breaking the law by that point, and the majority of children locked up are Indigenous.

Instead, the NSW attorney general tabled the Bail and Crimes Amendment Bill 2024 on that same day, which signalled to the state that persistent calls to restructure the criminal justice system so that crime is addressed at its root causes, rather than punished afterwards, are too much trouble.

The law to ensure 14- to 17-year-olds stealing cars or breaking and entering whilst on bail then being denied it, only lasts for 12 months, so they seem to have a very specific reach, while extra time for bragging online on commission of these crimes, appears to a keeping up appearance measure.

The BOCSAR report that supports Minns in his decision to crackdown on teens was released two days after the announcement. And it outlined that crime is trending down in regional Australia, besides four major offences, of which two are related to kids and that’s what this package is about.

Like the mentorship scheme, the package has a focus on Moree, which has a large First Nations population. And Minns has slated $13.4 million to address the town’s youth crime, which will include establishing new “bail accommodation”, which is perhaps better termed, a new youth lockup.

And these moves are supposed to reveal key NSW Labor members striking tough-on-crime poses before the NSW constituency, however grown men locking up children to achieve this effect does make one wonder about the perception these politicians have in the first place.

A lot at stake

Warner warned on the day the package was announced, that it was bound to have a devastating effect and one only has to contemplate what’s been occurring in Queensland, where it’s an election year and recent bail crackdowns have turned youth crime into an issue that could influence voters.

The ALS NSW/ACT CEO stressed that while her organisation is now focused on the situation in this state, various ALS branches across the continent have seen similar bail crackdowns in jurisdictions where Labor is in power, and a national campaign will be forthcoming.

“I believe that everyone here wants the same things,” Warner said during last week’s webinar, “safer communities, a better future for First Nations children and all children, to close the gap and strong and progressive governments that can stand attacks, reframe debates and win campaigns.”

“To realise these outcomes and values we must oppose and campaign to end the Minns government push for punitive law-and-order approaches to youth crime,” the ALS chief executive made certain in concluding.

“I hope to recruit you personally to our campaign. And for the Greens to provide the strongest possible opposition it can over the coming months and year because there is a lot at stake.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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