HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.40 pm]: It has been a very big week, and I particularly want to note the passage of the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Amendment Bill 2019 on Tuesday night. I personally felt an enormous amount of joy at the passage of that bill. It has been so long coming and I was really pleased when it was finally passed in this house and in the other place. It is an incredibly important and welcome reform, but I need to make the point that there is no room for complacency in this space and, as far as I am concerned, that was just the beginning of the sort of reform that we need to be undertaking. It is a small but important step towards ending the over-incarceration of particularly First Nations people in this state, but a lot more reform needs to occur.
It is very disappointing that as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has put on hold its whole-of-government targets, which included ensuring that by 2028–29, the number of Aboriginal adults in prison would be reduced by 23 per cent on 2017–18 numbers, and that by 2022–23, no more than 50 per cent of young offenders would be returned to detention within two years of release. These are really important targets that now, more than ever, should be a focus of government. As I have said on numerous occasions, dealing with youth justice reform needs to be an absolute priority. We know that the earlier children get into the youth justice system, the more likely they will go on to be long-term offenders. As at 31 March 2020, there were 116 children in youth justice detention in Western Australia. I want to thank the minister, because the corrective services data on the government website has been updated finally. Of those children in youth justice detention, 87 are Aboriginal. We are talking about 75 per cent of children currently incarcerated in this state being First Nations children. WA has the highest rate of incarceration of Aboriginal children and young people in the country. Reducing the number of First Nations people in custody absolutely has to include a focus on youth justice, and I would argue that is a very important primary step.
There are two important ways in which we can reduce the number of Aboriginal children and young people in detention. Firstly, we need to ensure that detention is truly an option of last resort and, secondly, we need to raise the age of criminal responsibility. I remind members that raising the age of criminal responsibility has been talked about widely since the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory. It is one of the recommendations included in the royal commission’s 2017 report. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has also called on countries to set a minimum age of responsibility at about 14 years or even higher, and recommends that children under 16 years of age should never be deprived of their liberty. I also note that key groups across Australia have strongly advocated for precisely this sort of change, including the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, the Law Council of Australia, the Australian Medical Association, Change the Record, Amnesty International Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert. She has been doing a lot of work in this area at the national level, and she and I work very closely together. I welcome the review of the age of criminal responsibility by the Council of Attorneys-General and note that it is being led by Western Australia’s Department of Justice. I truly hope that work has not also stalled as a result of COVID-19 and that we start to see some urgent change in this area pretty soon.
Again, we need to remember that the imprisonment of children should always be an absolute last resort, because evidence shows that locking up kids, particularly young children, does not translate to stopping them from breaking the law. In the long-term, it does not help make our communities any safer. Although the overall numbers in detention may not be growing now, increasing numbers of children and young people are, unfortunately, being kept on remand. As at 31 March this year, 64 per cent of the children being kept at Banksia Hill Detention Centre were on remand and were unsentenced. Many of those children do not need to be in detention. Reducing that number will require concerted efforts to ensure that those children have somewhere safe to live once they are granted bail. We have to make sure that we have properly invested in drug and alcohol programs so that people are not kept in detention while waiting until a replacement becomes available, as is the case for some of those children.
Of course, we need to make sure that we work hand in glove with Aboriginal communities to develop options to keep kids on country and make sure that they are kept close to their community. We need legislative reform to abolish all mandatory sentencing provisions, because mandatory sentencing, particularly of children, absolutely needs to stop and has no place in a civilised society. We need to identify and manage cognitive impairments such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in children and young people, particularly those in child protection and those who come into contact with the youth justice system. That has been a recommendation of report after report, yet it still has not been adequately addressed.
Unfortunately, this government has provided very little transparency for youth justice. I remind members of the complete shemozzle that occurred with the machinery-of-government changes with the Department of Communities. For a long time, we did not know whether youth justice was going to come into Communities or stay in corrective services. The people working in youth justice were kept in limbo for more than two years. It was an absolute disaster and meant that we had no reform in that space.
The youth justice framework, which outlined strategic projects and key priority areas of the department and was developed by the previous government, expired back in 2018, and there has not been a replacement that I am aware of. Furthermore, the review of the Young Offenders Act is, as far as I am aware, still on hold. I remind members that some provisions of that act do not even meet minimum international standards. I am glad that there is a global focus on justice systems due to the Black Lives Matter movement; it is about time. I do not want this important and, indeed, rare opportunity for change to be lost. I think we have momentum and I am determined to ensure that that is not lost. We have had a good week and have had a win, but we need to remember that some serious reforms are still not being progressed.