Is Australia failing children accused of crimes?

27 May 2019

On Monday 13 May, ABC’s Four Corners aired a harrowing exposé about the detention in Queensland of youths suspected of criminal wrongdoing in watch houses. Watch houses are adult maximum security facilities, which are used to hold a range of offenders who have been charged with offences ranging from minor street offences to the most series offences, such as paedophilia, and murder.

According to the police, the average time a youth spends in the Brisbane watch house is six days. One 16-year-old was detained for over 40 days. Children as young as 10 years old have been detained in a watch house. Some of those detained have severe cognitive impairments. For example, there was a 14-year-old with the cognitive functioning of a six-year-old. At the time the program aired, there were 85 children in Queensland watch houses. More than half of those youths detained are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander youths.

Amnesty International analysed the case notes of 200 youths detained within a one-year period. In that time, they found over 2600 violations of human rights law, domestic laws, and domestic procedures. Children detained in watch houses are subjected to strip searches. Where they are regarded as suicide risks, they are placed in isolation with suicide smocks, and not allowed to wear underwear. Youths detained in watch houses do not have access to the outdoors, and only get up to 15 minutes exercise a day in a four-walled pen with a mesh sky roof above them. The lights in their cells are always on. In one instance, a young female was put in a cell with two alleged male sex offenders.

The program raised serious concerns about whether proper care is being given to youth detainees. Whilst some youths are accused of serious offences, others are there over allegations of trivial crimes. They have not been convicted of any wrong-doing, but as the youth detention centres are overflowing, they are left in watch-houses which are supposed to detain adult offenders, including the most dangerous. The effect may be that vulnerable children are being exposed to significant risks, and traumatised due to a lack of appropriate facilities.

Whilst the program related to watch houses in Queensland, this does not mean it is just an issue for Queensland. In 2016, Four Corners similarly exposed the inappropriate and at times cruel mistreatment of youths in the criminal justice system in the Northern Territory. Though it sparked a Royal Commission, it is not clear whether the Royal Commission’s findings went far enough, or whether those findings will be implemented. People in other parts of Australia may also be duly shocked if Four Corners investigates other states and territories.


Michael Brull

Policy Lawyer