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ABC News

Renewed calls for juvenile offenders to be sent to assessment centres rather than detention

The former head of Queensland's prison system has renewed calls for an overhaul of the youth justice system, saying the system is "putting lives at risk".

Keith Hamburger, Queensland's Corrective Services Commission director-general between 1988 and 1997, said the Australia-wide problem required a more holistic approach to address "inhumane, overcrowded, and not-fit-for purpose" facilities.

Speaking on ABC Radio Brisbane this week, Mr Hamburger said the justice system was putting lives at risk and wasting public money, labelling it "worst practice" and a "terrible disgrace".

"At the moment, magistrates are in a very difficult position, … they have two choices, really, put [juvenile offenders] in detention centres or let them go back into the community under some form of supervision," he said.

Mr Hamburger worked with First Nations communities and experts to suggest "remote healing centres" instead of jail could prevent recidivism among Indigenous drug offenders in 2016.

Recently, Mr Hamburger with professor Aunty Boni Robertson, Uncle Mick Gooda, Aunty Rachel Atkinson, Reverend Aunty Alex Gater, Aunty Keelen Mailman and Aunty Sheryl Lawton, proposed a sweeping overhaul to approaches to youth and adult offenders.

The authors of the proposal submitted the plan to the government last month in a bid to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in detention, reduce the costs of the justice system and make communities safer.

The proposal recommends the state government to adopt a 2019 Productivity Commission recommendation to establish an independent statutory body, to focus on "longer-term outcomes", and promote "evidence-based" policy.

State government working to establish two offices to implement change

A Palaszczuk government spokesperson said the government is establishing the "Criminal Justice Innovation Office", in response to the Queensland Productivity Commission's report,  which would explore options to reduce demand on the criminal justice system.

"In addition, the First Nations Justice Office is being established with a specific focus on how to address the over-representation of First Nations people throughout our criminal justice system.

"Together, these two bodies will be working in tandem to implement change."

Proposal calls for treatment plans instead of detention

The proposal also calls for juvenile offenders to be sent to "assessment centres" under 24/7 rather than being held in watch houses and detention centres.

Mr Hamburger highlighted that many of the children who were charged with offences, come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have foetal alcohol syndrome, intellectual impairments, or have been subjected to neglect and abuse as a child.

Those assessment centres would be "relatively small" with each child "holistically assessed" by medical, educational and social experts, and a treatment plan devised.

"That plan will be taken to the magistrate with the child and with any family or whoever is involved with the child in the court would then have a few options," he said.

"We're not putting those kids back on the street so they can reoffend, if they're taken off the street, the community will be safer."

The authors of the proposal are calling for three to five trials in different Queensland communities with reviews of their efficacy.

They have also requested the Queensland Audit Office conduct a special priority audit of the Queensland Corrective Services and Department of Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs in the provision of imprisonment, detention and rehabilitation.

State government "welcomes all ideas"

A Palaszczuk government spokesperson said the government holds "deep respect" for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who have joined with Mr Hamburger to provide the submission which the government is reviewing.

"The Queensland government welcomes all ideas about how to address the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our prisons and detention centres," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said Queensland Corrective Services Commissioner Paul Stewart has had a "number of productive meetings with Mr Hamburger and his associates" in recent months. 

"As identified in the Report on Government Services, Queensland Corrective Services is one of the most efficient corrective service jurisdictions in Australia and its financial performance, like other Queensland Government Agencies, is audited yearly by the Queensland Audit Office, as well as the yearly budget performance through the Parliamentary Estimates process.

"As an evidence-based agency, QCS is constantly scanning and evaluating its effectiveness and looking to adopt successful practices when they are identified."

ABC News this week reported details of a review into Queensland's youth justice changes which showed children may be pleading guilty to offences they have not committed to avoid new bail laws and delays.

It came after Four Corners this week exposed allegations of excessive force in Western Australia's youth detention centre Banksia Hill.

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