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Queensland watch house with 77 youth inmates, half of them aged under 14

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In one of the busiest police watchhouses for children in Queensland, half of the young people in custody are aged under 14.

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Greens MP Michael Berkman has used a question on notice to obtain the latest figures revealing the number of people aged 10-17 detained in police watchhouses.

Police and Corrective Services Minister Mark Ryan released a monthly breakdown, by watchhouse, showing the sites routinely taking in the most alleged young offenders.

In the last available month of figures, to the 25th of May, 77 young people had been held in the watchhouse in Cairns, 60 in Southport, 58 in Brisbane and 49 in Townsville.

In the north, the majority were indigenous, and half of the young people held in custody in Cairns watchhouse were aged under 14.

Berkman said only two years ago, in response to an ABC news investigation, the Palaszczuk Government agreed that children should not be kept in watchhouses.

An analysis of previous data suggests that led to a brief reduction in youth custody rates, but Berkman said the latest figures showed “history repeating”.

“Now it looks like we’re back where we started and I have to wonder: does this government only care about children’s human rights when it’s a PR problem?”

According to the latest figures, the longest a young person was held in a watchhouse during the period examined was 208 hours (almost nine days) however Ryan said 49 per cent were there for less than six hours and 84 per cent for one night or less.

It is a far cry from mid-2019, when, in response to the ABC investigation, the government released a media statement to celebrate the fact there were no young people being held in the Brisbane watchhouse. Since then, community concern over crime rates, particularly in Townsville, have put Labor under political pressure, to the point where several high-profile incidents after the election prompted a change of policy.

At the end of 2020, the government dumped its youth bail houses, arguing they were not working, and in February this year unveiled a youth crime package that shifted the courts’ position from a presumption of bail to a presumption of custody for serious offences. It also required more from families, and gave the courts the option of ordering repeat offenders wear GPS trackers.

While Berkman and some advocacy groups warned the package would put more young people in custody unnecessarily, the government insisted the changes only targeted high risk and recidivist offenders. A parliamentary committee accepted assurances the changes “do not abrogate the intent of previous reforms to keep young people out of custody except when necessary to protect community safety”.

Berkman called on the government to divert more funding into addressing the root causes of offending to keep young people out of custody.

“In addition to urgently transitioning kids from watch houses into safe housing with wrap-around social support for them and their families, the government needs a plan to fix this once and for all – because clearly their current strategy has failed,” Berkman said.

The government has also resisted an internal Labor push to lift the age of criminality from 10 to 14, as recommended by some expert groups, arguing any such changes would need to be considered on a national level.

“I have a son who’s 11 and a daughter turning 10 soon,” Berkman said.

“To think of Queensland kids as young as mine, kids still losing their baby teeth, being locked in adult watch houses – it makes me sick.”

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