What we need to do right now to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our criminal justice systems? Information, independent monitoring and release

On 7 April 2020, over 350 criminal justice experts in Australia endorsed an important second open letter to all Australian Attorneys-General and Corrections Ministers. It urges their immediate action to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in Australian prisons and criminal justice systems, noting that this requires information, independent monitoring and release from prision and youth detention centres.

Given the particular vulnerability of children and young people in Australian youth detention centres, the letter calls for their immediate release wherever possible.

Our network also endorses the letter.

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What we need to do right now to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our criminal justice systems? Information, independent monitoring and release

The letter in part states:

The cohort of young people in detention who are more likely to have mental illness, cognitive impairment, FASD and other behavioural difficulties are likely to find
it harder than most to comply with [social distancing and handwashing] directives. This, combined with enclosed, inadequately sanitised, and overcrowded conditions make many YDC high risk environments for the transmission of COVID-19 amongst detainees and staff, and therefore the broader community.

Global uncertainty and anxiety about COVID-19 affects all members of our community, but children in detention separated from their families and support networks are at particular risk of mental harm.

Children and young people in detention already experience extremely high rates of co-morbid health problems and mental disorders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are at even higher risk of self-injury and suicide.

Similarly, we expect extremely negative impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of the families of these young people if they are unable to reunited during these difficult times.

Immediate efforts should be made to release these children and young people wherever possible. If these children and young people are not released, there is a very real risk that they will be subjected to conditions of separation, isolation and restriction within YDC if COVID-19 enters the youth detention system, in a belated bid to contain the virus.

This poses extreme risk to the mental health and wellbeing of these children.

The above signatories are concerned that efforts to control COVID19 including separating detainees, putting detainees in isolation and limiting social interaction and visits will have potentially long- lasting negative impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of these young people.

Emergency measures specific to children include:
• Granting temporary leave to young people who have suitable family or alternative accommodation.
• Prioritising bail for children and young people who are on remand.
• Expediting youth parole board hearings to release children and young people to suitable family or alternative accommodation.
• Enacting legislative changes necessary to release sentenced children and young people early.
• Enacting necessary legislative changes to state and territory bail acts to reduce the number of children on remand due to breaches that do not constitute new offending.
• Making specific provision to move Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children out of Youth Detention Centres and on country.

You can read the second open letter here.

The link to the first open letter is here.

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