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Indigenous Kids Behind Bars Are 'A New Lost Generation'

Elders in the Kimberley region of Western Australia are in despair and say they're losing a generation of young people to life behind bars.

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It's a common story across the Kimberley, Indigenous elders desperately trying to save a generation of young people people from an endless spiral of crime and incarceration.

"There’s a lot of black kids in there [juvenile detention]. You see a lot of new black kids come in there everyday" – Sidney Griffith, Kununurra man.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed News

Sidney Griffith, 19, grew up walking the streets of Kununurra, in the West Kimberley region as a child. Eventually he started to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana in his early teens.

"I grew up walking the streets all night. I was 12 or 13 when I first started using drugs and alcohol and smoking cannabis. I used to hate the police and I never liked the red and blue. They're especially cheeky to blackfellas when there are no other witnesses around."

At 16, Sidney was sent to juvenile detention in Perth, "I used to do burglaries, I use to do break and enters, armed-robberies, a lot of crazy shit. I felt like no-one cared about me."

Sidney would go on to spend the next three years in an out of lock-up. Now at 19 Sidney has just finished his last round of court ordered community service and says that he's determined to stay on the straight and narrow for the sake of his five month old daughter.

He says that what he desperately needed as a young teen was an Aboriginal diversionary program.

"If there was a program when I got in trouble at that time, when I couldn’t find a program at that time, I would have been really grateful and I probably wouldn’t have ended up in jail."

Sidney's story is not an uncommon one.

Mick Tsikas / AAP

Last week a report by Amnesty international, "A brighter tomorrow: Keeping indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Australia," slammed Australia's high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders behind bars.

The organisation's Secretary General Silal Shetty warned of a new lost generation saying, "We will see another generation lost to failed government policies unless Australian governments get smarter about this, and fast."

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Western Australia. The report found that the rate of detention in WA is twice the national average. Nearly 67 of every 10,000 young indigenous people are in custody.

The number of Aboriginal youth behind bars in WA is wildly disproportionate to the actual indigenous youth population. Aboriginal youth make up almost 80 percent of the juvenile detention population in WA.

Legal experts say most indigenous kids are being locked up for minor bail breaches and that a tough law and order stance is putting more people away than ever.

Elders in the Kimberley say culture and diversionary programs on traditional land is the only way to stop the rising tide of young people being locked up, but they say they're being ignored by policy makers.

"They get disconnected from culture completely. You talk about lost generations. They are heading in that direction again" – elder Ben Ward.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed News

Kimberley elder Ben Ward has been helping keep young people out of detention for the last three decades on the small remote community of Cockatoo Springs. Mr Ward has been offering young offenders a chance to turn their back on crime by taking them onto traditional land and teaching them about traditional culture

"I like to see people back on their country. I want young people to come out here, have a detention centre for our young boys here and for their detention and punishment to go through the lore, blackfella lore. We're trying to get young people away from the system. Gudiya (white person) don’t know anything about our kids. They're not teaching them what we should be teaching them. No-one can handle our kids, only us."

Despite helping more than 300 young offenders or at-risk children, Mr Ward says he still hasn't received any funding or been been consulted by the courts. Mr Ward warns that children and teenagers are becoming increasingly isolated and disconnected

"I have been looking after juveniles for so long and still never get no help. Not from anyone. I live on a pension and everyone of these people here, they are living off my pension because to me, I find it easy for a blackfella to look after someone."

Nationally, Indigenous youth make up more than half of the juvenile prison population, despite only representing five percent of the 10-17-year-old population.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed News

A new report by Amnesty around incarceration rates in Western Australia is due to be released tomorrow in Perth.