11 Candles in Jail
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Divya questions the viability of a youth justice system that criminalises children from a disturbingly young age, and seems to have lost sight of its purpose.
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11 Candles in Jail

by Divya Venkataraman See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
21st Jul 2017
11 Candles in Jail

Playing on long dirt roads, the light under big leafy trees and the smell of chlorine in summertime.  Sentimental or not, there is a certain natural association between childhood and roaming the neighbourhood, getting home at sundown, and the freedom of the few streets the you know like the back of your hand. For some children though, childhood has been wire fences, institutions, prison guards. For the incarcerated youth of Australia, childhood has been the very opposite of these small freedoms. 

Last July, Australia was shocked by footage which aired highlighting the abuse faced by children within a Northern Territory juvenile correction facility. Dylan Voller, himself repeatedly incarcerated as a child, testified before the Royal Commission into the protection and Detention of children in the Northern Territory about the abuse he faced. This Commission has no had its mandate extended, until August of this year, due to the volume and intricacy of the inquiries before it. The Northern territory in particular incarcerates young people at a rate of three times that of the other States and territories. 74 per cent of incarcerated youth are Indigenous. When it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, nearly 80 per cent will be jailed again after release from their first stint in juvenile detention. Recidivism rates are astounding.

The Guardian reported earlier this year on an Indigenous youth identified only as Jared, who had been in custody for each of his birthdays since he was 11 years old, and had not spent more than a consecutive eight weeks out of jail since his first stint. The reason for Jared’s continued presence in custody was a combination of missed court dates, unpaid fines and charges for minor offences which tallied to an entire adolescence shunted between home and jail. Importantly, and often, it is those who are in vulnerable domestic situations who spend extended period of time in jail. Jared had been identified by Disability South Australia as having a registered intellectual disability.

The detention rate for petty crimes such as not paying a fine for jaywalking, or graffiti and vandalism is part of the reason that disaffected youth remains stuck within the circle of imprisonment and recidivism.

Even more shocking is that the majority of youth in jail currently are there not because of a conviction, but because they have no other alternatives for a place to stay while they await court determinations.

The question to ask here then is why? What is the purpose of taking away the liberties a child is supposed to enjoy?

The criminal justice system often lists specific and general deterrence, punishment and public safety as reasons for the deprivation of any person’s freedom. First of all, I would wager that public safety would likely be less under attack by a ten year old with spray paint than one who comes out of jail hardened and more likely to more seriously reoffend in the future. And secondly, how do you deter a child who is too young to even comprehend the gravity of his or her actions?

The age of criminal culpability in Australia, at 10 years old, is well below the United Nations Committee on the Rights of a Child’s recommendation of 12 years minimum. A child that age is unable to comprehend his actions, let alone grapple with the confusing, intimidating judicial processes which come with a court attendance.

When a criminal justice system does not even begin to start addressing its stated aims, we must question its value. 

Divya Venkataraman

About Divya Venkataraman

Divya Venkataraman is a final-year Arts/Law student at the University of New South Wales and writes on a freelance basis. She has been published in two short story anthologies and nominated for the Premier's Multicultural Media Award.

More from Divya Venkataraman

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Power & Policy
Sydney NSW, Australia
21st July 2017

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