Accountability and transparency key to watch house solution12 December 2023
- A Queensland Family and Child Commission (QFCC) 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 review aimed to identify the drivers of Queensland’s over-reliance on watch houses, with findings including a lack of bail options, reduced efficiency rates of courts, the impact of bail reform, and the ineffectiveness of detention as a means of reducing reoffending.
- The review made five recommendations for immediate implementation to reduce the time children are detained 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.
Detention of children in watch houses of five to seven days has increased by 78 per cent between 2019 and 2022 and detentions of 8 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.
The QFCC has reviewed Queensland’s use of watch houses to understand why children are increasingly being held for extended periods and to identify who is responsible for monitoring and reducing the trend.
The review found that reporting across courts, policing and youth justice systems was inconsistent and not transparent and was complicated by an umbrella of ten oversight and complaint bodies charged with discrete responsibilities for the wellbeing of children. It also identified that 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 behind 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
- 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 time 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.
- The Department of Justice and Attorney-General identifies strategies for courts to reduce the length of time children are in unsentenced detention.
The QFCC’s report Who’s responsible: Understanding why young people are being held longer in Queensland watch houses is available at www.qfcc.qld.gov.au
Quotes attributed to Queensland Family and Child Commission Principal Commissioner Luke Twyford:
“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.
“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.
“There is broad consensus within government, the community, the judiciary, police and frontline workers that watch houses are not suitable places to hold children, yet I am seeing little improvement.
“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.
“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.
“I am committed to collaboratively and productively working with government and the other oversight bodies to improve transparency and accountability in our youth justice system and give young Queenslanders, their families and the community greater confidence in our system.”
For media information contact:
Kirstine O’Donnell | Queensland Family and Child Commission
Phone: 0404 971 164