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Watch-house review finds system in crisis

A review of the state’s increasing use of watch houses to detain children has described a fragmented youth justice system that lacks transparency and a single point of accountability.

The results of the Queensland Family and Child Commission (QFCC) review, Who’s responsible: Understanding why young people are being held longer in Queensland watch houses, were released yesterday.

Findings included a lack of bail options, reduced court efficiency and the ineffectiveness of detention to reduce reoffending.

The review made five urgent recommendations to reduce the time children spent in watch houses, including improving cross-agency collaboration, transparency of record-keeping and public reporting, and reducing unsentenced detention.

Queensland detains children at a higher rate than any other Australian jurisdiction, which has challenged the capacity of detention centres and caused an over-reliance on watch houses.

The review found detention of children in watch houses of five to seven days increased by 78 per cent between 2019 and 2022, and detentions of eight to 14 days increased 12 per cent over the same period.

Part-year data for 2023 showed significant increases, with 108 detentions in watch houses lasting more than two weeks, exceeding 21 detentions recorded over the entire 2022 year.

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It also found reporting across courts, policing and youth justice systems was inconsistent and not transparent, and was complicated by an umbrella of 10 oversight and complaint bodies charged with discrete responsibilities for the wellbeing of children. It also identified collaboration across agencies was lacking, with no documented accountability for a child.

Despite the lack of clarity and transparency in reporting, the QFCC identified six key drivers of Queensland’s increasing over-reliance on watch houses:

  • a child’s family circumstances are influencing bail decisions;
  • changes to youth justice legislation has increased the number of children on remand and the length of time;
  • the efficiency rate of courts for children on remand has reduced;
  • Queensland youth detention centre capacity has not met demand;
  • the existing model is not reducing reoffending and children are cycling through watch houses and detention centres; and
  • a lack of accountability and transparency is hindering development and implementation of solutions.

The QFCC asked agencies to show compliance with their obligations under Queensland’s youth justice and human rights legislation to meet the needs of children and uphold their rights. The responses received confirmed that watch houses are not suitable places to detain children, especially not for extended periods of time.

The review made five recommendations for immediate implementation:

  • the Youth Justice Department, courts and the Queensland Police Service (QPS) collaborate to monitor the drivers identified in the review and report to the QFCC with proposed action;
  • the Youth Justice Department immediately amends the reporting provided to oversight bodies on the number of children held in watch houses to include the period they have been detained;
  • the Queensland Government establishes a single point of accountability for producing regular public reports on the number of children held in watch houses and their circumstances;
  • the QPS and Youth Justice Department improve the information recorded about the circumstances of a child’s detainment, the full context behind bail and remand decisions, and the extent to which children’s needs and rights are being met and upheld while in custody; and
  • the Department of Justice and Attorney-General identifies strategies for courts to reduce the length of time children are in unsentenced detention.

“Watch houses are not appropriate places to hold children, potentially exposing them to violent and anti-social adult behaviour, which is harmful, re-traumatising and does not reduce the likelihood of reoffending,” QFCC Principal Commissioner Luke Twyford said.

“We also know that First Nations children are 21 times more likely to be held in youth detention in comparison with non-Indigenous children, meaning Queensland’s increasing use of watch houses is grossly and disproportionately affecting First Nations children.”

Mr Twyford said government, the community, the judiciary, police and frontline workers agreed that watch houses were not suitable places to hold children.

“The outcomes of this review confirm my initial concerns – that the separation of responsibilities across government agencies, complicated by a web of administration and bureaucracy, means no one is directly responsible or accountable for the time a child spends in a watch house nor the impact this has on their wellbeing,” he said.

“While we focus on meeting the additional demand and capacity pressures being experienced by the system, we are missing other ways we can better reduce youth offending, including focusing on its root causes and holding children accountable in ways that are actually effective.”

The QFCC’s report is available here.

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