Teenagers ‘charged for petty crimes’ locked up in NSW because of homelessness, report says

By Cait Kelly
Barbed wire prison wall
Peak youth homelessness body Yfoundations reports that hundreds of teen offenders are behind bars simply because they have no home to go to. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Hundreds of adolescent offenders are being held in detention in New South Wales before they have been sentenced simply because they are homeless, a report has revealed.

During the 2019 - 2020 financial year, 236 highly vulnerable adolescents were locked up before they had been sentenced because they had nowhere else to go, the report by the peak body for youth homelessness Yfoundations has shown.

On an average day during that year, 144 un-sentenced adolescents remained in custody, which was (57%) of the total population of young people in detention.

Those adolescents stayed 16.6 days on average while awaiting trial, but only a small minority (14%) were sentenced to detention.

Detaining 10- to 17-year-olds before their sentence is legal in NSW under section 28 of the Bail Act 2013 (NSW).

CEO of Yfoundations, Pam Barker, said the young people waiting to be sentenced were there for petty crimes.

“The age of criminality in Australia is 10 years old,” Barker said. “Young people go away for small crimes and get charged for petty things: stealing a chocolate bar, breaking and entering a vacant lot.”

“We’re going to lose these teenagers.”

There were 17,710 offenders aged between 10 and 17 years in 2019–20, comprising 15% of total offenders in NSW.

More than a third (37% or 6,546) of youth offenders had a principle offence of fare evasion, and almost a fifth (19% or 3,321) had a principal offence of acts intended to cause injury.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teenagers are disproportionally affected.

On an average day, 45% of adolescents in custody in NSW were Aboriginal, although they only make up 6% of the 10- to 17-year-old cohort in NSW, according to the 2016 census.

Aboriginal adolescents are also more likely to be homeless – in 2019/20, they made 27% of the unaccompanied 10- to 17-year-olds who accessed homelessness services.

Gaps in the NSW youth housing system make it extremely difficult for caseworkers to find alternative accommodation for these vulnerable adolescents. NSW currently has only 17 “bail beds” where adolescents are placed with youth housing providers.

Barker said more beds are needed, along with tailored support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adolescents and the abolishment of section 28.

“No young person who is under the care of the minister should become homeless,” she said.

“This will reduce the number of adolescents going into detention.”

"If adolescents find the right support, they can turn their lives around.”

“We have really young human beings with complex trauma histories being branded as criminals,” she said.

“They’re young people who have traumatic paths and they need support, love and care.”


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