Monday, 7 April 2008

Juvenile detainees sharing single cells

SEVERE overcrowding in the state's juvenile detention centres is forcing young people to share cells designed for one person, to sleep on mattresses on the floor and be held in "segregation" rooms usually used as punishment cells.

The Department of Juvenile Justice is shifting detainees who have turned 18 to adult jails despite judges' orders their sentences be served in juvenile detention until age 21 because of special circumstances that can include immaturity, mental health problems and rehabilitation prospects.

Some detainees have been unable to get a place in the centres' schools, and rehabilitation programs are under pressure, staff said.

A departmental spokesman admitted yesterday that some detainees had shared cells on mattresses as "a temporary measure to deal with unexpected surges" in numbers, and youths had been moved to adult jails.

Detainee numbers surged after the NSW Government's changes to the Bail Act in November as well as increased policing, the spokesman said.

Counsellors and lawyers are concerned that vulnerable young people and model detainees who have responded to rehabilitation will come to grief in adult jails.

"My fear is that you get high-risk young people who don't want to be moved into adult prisons becoming another death in custody - all for the sake of a friggin' bed," said Bradley Freeburn, a co-ordinator at the Aboriginal Medical Service.

The State Government amended a law two years ago to enable the department to override a judge's orders detaining young offenders after their 18th birthday. But until the overcrowding problems this year, these orders were countered only if youths were disruptive or a danger to other children, lawyers said.

"A lot of these young people are fodder from DOCS and a high number are Aboriginal kids, and now because of overcrowding they're being funnelled into the adult system," said a centre worker who could not be named.

Ten youths have been transferred this year, and staff said a further 20 are to be moved. A departmental spokesman said the offenders were adults who had committed serious offences including murder, sexual assault and armed robbery.

Andrew Haesler, the deputy senior public defender, has been asked to advise on whether legal challenges to the Supreme Court can be made in two cases to reverse or prevent transfers.

Confidential departmental information shows there were more children than beds in the system virtually every night last month with all nine centres consistently at overcapacity.

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