Indigenous children are being locked up while they await trial for crimes that don’t even carry a prison sentence, Amnesty International claims.
The human rights group is recommending new laws that prevent pre-trial jailing of young people unless detention is the last resort.
Indigenous youth are 26 times more likely to be jailed than non-indigenous young people and 58 per cent of 10-17 year olds in prison are indigenous, despite making up just six per cent of the population.
The human rights group says Australia incarcerates indigenous children, as young as 10, at one of the highest rates in the developed world.
Often indigenous children are jailed because they are homeless or have unsuitable accommodation options, the report found.
Some were later proven innocent despite spending time in prison, while others are convicted of crimes that are not punished with jail time.
The report, titled A Brighter Tomorrow and released by Amnesty International head Salil Shetty at Canberra’s National Press Club on Tuesday, calls for better bail accommodation and support services for young people.
“Sadly, once these children have been locked up … the likelihood is they will spend the rest of their lives caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” he said.
In a raft of recommendations aimed at reducing indigenous youth imprisonment, the report calls for the end to mandatory detention for anyone under 17.
It also wants the commonwealth to overrule any state and territory legislation that does not conform with the UN Convention of Rights of the Child.
Specifically, it wants those laws to target any jurisdiction that treats a person up to the age of 17 as an adult or considers any child under the age of 12 as criminally responsible.
Amnesty also reignites calls for putting in place Closing the Gap justice targets to set a goal for reducing indigenous over-representation in Australian prisons.
Justice targets have been ruled out by the Abbott government which argues action on the ground is more important than goals on paper.
The report also highlights the role of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in incarceration rates and calls for more action on diagnosing and treating affected children.
The disorder is contracted by children whose mothers abuse alcohol or drugs and leaves them with behavioural problems, learning difficulties and other impairments.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda says a lot of the reasons indigenous youth are behind bars are preventable.
“This is a national emergency. This must change, urgently,” he says.
* Enact federal laws to override any state or territory legislation that doesn’t confirm to the Convention of the Rights of the Child
* Ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and allow inspections of youth detention centres
* Introduce a Closing the Gap justice target with states and territories
* Maintain funding for the Family Violence Prevention Legal Service and the peak indigenous services body NATSILS
* Urgently finalise an official tool for diagnosing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and recognise the condition as a disability under the National Disability Insurance Scheme.