HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.11 pm]: There has been a flurry of activity in the other place this week and I note some very overdue legislation has been introduced. I am pleased to see reforms in work health and safety, family and domestic violence and also the child protection space, but I am continually frustrated that we have still not seen any of the long-promised reform in the youth justice space. It is well recognised that we need to review and reform the Young Offenders Act. Previously, both the government, as well as the former government, have recognised this. In fact, in December 2016, the then Department of Corrective Services released a green paper. It sought and received a range of stakeholder submissions and recommended a number of important changes to the act. Since that time, I have been chasing this matter up with the minister and have regularly asked about the government’s intentions to follow through on these reforms.
In September 2017, in response to my parliamentary question, the minister indicated the review was still in progress and that preliminary analysis of stakeholder feedback had been done and that finalisation at that point, I was told, was dependent on machinery-of-government changes. I remind members that machinery-of-government changes kept youth justice in limbo for an incredibly long time; it was only this year that we finally got confirmation that it was never getting transferred into Communities.
Then, when I asked again in June 2018, I was told the review was on hold—again—pending the outcome of machinery-of-government changes. In October 2018, when I asked again, following the release of an Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services report that recommended legislative changes to clarify the use of confinement and isolation at Banksia Hill, the minister’s response was that the government intended to undertake a comprehensive review of the act, I was assured, with no mention made at all in that answer of the half-done review from the previous year.
In April this year, the minister indicated the terms of reference of the review would be finalised by mid-2019. Just over a week ago, on 20 November, when I asked most recently, I was advised that, nevertheless, to date, no terms of reference have been developed and no review has commenced let alone been completed. I have to say that although the minister’s intentions in this area are absolutely as clear as mud, what is abundantly clear to me is that youth justice reform is absolutely not a priority. I am really disappointed about that. The 2016 green paper noted— this is a direct quote —
... law reform is essential if we wish to ensure the YOA remains relevant in our changing society.
I could not agree more. We need legislative reform to raise the age of criminal responsibility, because we know that detention is destabilising and harmful to children, and 10 years old is far too young to be in a maximum-security prison. We are talking about kids who are in year 4 at school. It is too young to be separated from their family and community and to be exposed to the type of environment that we know will increase their chances of reoffending in the future. I remind members that Australia is completely out of step internationally on this issue. We need change to make sure that we are better entrenching the principle that the detention of children must always be an absolute last resort. As the green paper notes, detention is a detrimental and ineffective response to youth crime, and it is also really expensive, so if that is a person’s bag, they should be well and truly behind reform. We know that there are far too many children and young people in detention who are yet to be convicted of an offence or, as I have spoken about over the last few years, have been deemed eligible for release but because of a lack of support, appropriate accommodation or access to alcohol and other drugs services are being kept in prison far longer than they otherwise would be.
We need change to increase the availability, efficacy and use of diversionary options. Most young people who offend will not go on to become serious offenders, but we know that exposing young people to the criminal justice system can increase their chances of reoffending. Young people who have spent time in detention are also far more likely to be imprisoned later in their lives. Diversion presents an opportunity to address the causes of young people’s offending without the costs and negative outcomes associated with court and detention. In 2008, the Auditor General looked into the use of diversion and revisited that issue nine years later in 2017. The Auditor General found that the benefits of diversion had not been realised, with police choosing to divert young people from court less than half the time. Answers to questions I asked in Parliament in August indicated that out of just over 7 000 offences eligible for diversion last year, only 55 per cent resulted in a diversion. Therefore, police are still failing to adequately record reasons for choosing not to divert a young person from court, and I think that is a problem.
We also need legislative change to provide clarity and certainty around the provisions related to confinement and isolation. Again, the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services has consistently called for that. We hear too many stories of young people who are locked up on their own in cells that are tiny. Often they are locked up for days on end and are given the opportunity to be out of their cell only for very short breaks. These are often the most troubled, vulnerable and traumatised children.
We need legislation that better prioritises access to education for children in the youth justice system. According to the Department of Education’s annual report, the Department of Education is responsible for delivering a high-quality education to all students in all learning environments. I note that the Department of Education supported the provision of education services to children and young people in Banksia Hill Detention Centre last year through funding the equivalent of the provision of three teachers and access to online professional learning for Banksia Hill staff. I am really appalled that only three teachers are employed by Education. The corrective services division, of course, is then expected to make up the gap and fund the other teachers and education staff, and that means that there are currently no education assistants. This year there was an average daily population in Banksia Hill of 134 children and young people ranging in age from 10 years to over 18 years. They all have fragmented education histories. Many of them, if not most of them, have behavioural issues associated with complex and traumatic pasts. Again, I remind members of the Telethon Kids Institute research that a high proportion of them have a serious neurodevelopmental impairment as well. The Department of Education says to the corrective services division, “Look, here’s some funding for three teachers and access to some online professional learning”—and that is it. That is it for these kids. I recognise that some absolutely amazing people are working in this space, but they are just not getting access to enough support and resources. I note that the “2017 WA Labor Platform” includes the following statement —
In particular WA Labor commits to: ...
Ensuring, legislatively, that incarceration is treated as a last resort, and that diversionary tactics, restorative justice and rehabilitation are the priority for young offenders;
I would like to see the minister start demonstrating some commitment to delivering on this promise and making it happen.