Rights defenders fear ‘irreversible harm’ to children in Queensland after changes to justice system leave more under-18s in detention.The government of Australia’s northeastern state of Queensland has stunned rights experts by suspending its Human Rights Act for a second time this year to be able to lock up more children.
The ruling Labor Party last month pushed through a suite of legislation to allow under-18s – including children as young as 10 – to be detained indefinitely in police watch houses, because changes to youth justice laws – including jail for young people who breach bail conditions – mean there are no longer enough spaces in designated youth detention centres to house all those being put behind bars.
The amended bail laws, introduced earlier this year, also required the Human Rights Act to be suspended.
The moves have shocked Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall, who described human rights protections in Australia as “very fragile”, with no laws that apply nationwide.
“We don’t have a National Human Rights Act. Some of our states and territories have human rights protections in legislation. But they’re not constitutionally entrenched so they can be overridden by the parliament,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Queensland Human Rights Act – introduced in 2019 – protects children from being detained in adult prison so it had to be suspended for the government to be able to pass its legislation.
Earlier this year, Australia’s Productivity Commission reported that Queensland had the highest number of children in detention of any Australian state.
Between 2021-2022, the so-called “Sunshine State” recorded a daily average of 287 people in youth detention, compared with 190 in Australia’s most populous state New South Wales, the second highest.
And despite a cost of more than 1,800 Australian dollars ($1,158) to hold each child for a day, more than half the jailed Queensland children are resentenced for new offences within 12 months of their release.
Another report released by the Justice Reform Initiative in November 2022 showed that Queensland’s youth detention numbers had increased by more than 27 percent in seven years.
The push to hold children in police watch houses is viewed by the Queensland government as a means to house these growing numbers. Attached to police stations and courts, a watch house contains small, concrete cells with no windows and is normally used only as a “last resort” for adults awaiting court appearances or required to be locked up by police overnight.
However, McDougall said he has “real concerns about irreversible harm being caused to children” detained in police watch houses, which he described as a “concrete box”.
“[A watch house] often has other children in it. There’ll be a toilet that is visible to pretty much anyone,” he said.
“Children do not have access to fresh air or sunlight. And there’s been reported cases of a child who was held for 32 days in a watch house whose hair was falling out. After two to three days in a watch house, a child’s mental health will start to deteriorate. At the point of eight, nine or 10 days in the watch house, I have heard numerous reports of children breaking down at that time.”
He also pointed out that 90 percent of imprisoned children and young people were awaiting trial.
“Queensland has extremely high rates of children in detention being held on remand. So these are children who have not been convicted of an offence,” he told Al Jazeera.