CLANT deplores Gunner’s youth justice U-turn

The recent announcements by the Chief Minister (regarding reforms to the Youth Justice Act and Bail Act) are both disappointing and retrograde.

The amendments have been proposed without any stakeholder engagement or consultation with the sector and appear purely political. A lack of engagement and transparency in law reform has become a hall mark of this government as highlighted by the dissolution of the Legislation Scrutiny Committee in September last year.

There is a belief in the community that locking up children in detention centres makes the community safe. That is a lie. It in fact has the potential to drastically worsen the safety of the community in the long term.  If you want to stop crime you need to deal with the underlying causes of crime and address those factors. Until we do that we will see no reduction in crime, research based evidence and indeed the lived experience and history of the NT criminal jurisdiction shows this to be true.

There is a belief in the community that the Court and Judicial officers do not care about youth crime. That is a lie. The criminal justice system has been let down for decades by successive Territory Governments that have resolved to put politics ahead of the welfare of the community. Currently the criminal justice system is being left to pick up the pieces without ever being provided with the funding, infrastructure and tools to successfully roll out and transition to a therapeutic model.

The proposed reforms are contrary to the recommendations of the final report of the Royal Commission into Protection and Detention of Children in the NT.

Rather than committing to a full scale roll out of reforms following the publishing of the final report the government has slowly unrolled a series of watered down reforms in a piecemeal fashion. That approach has certainly impacted upon the effectiveness of moving to a therapeutic based system. We have seen a failure of commitment to adequately fund, staff and source infrastructure to support the community and vulnerable youths in our community. It is startling to see a commitment of $5 million being allocated to further detention facilities and infrastructure when that money could have and should have been allocated to simple initiatives that would have already been capable of better protecting the community and balancing the rights of young people at risk.

Chips Mackinolty 2020

Our shameful incarceration and treatment of Aboriginal youth will yet again be front and centre. When closely scrutinised, the crime statistics published late last week revealed a significant reduction in areas of traditional youth oriented crime, including in particular property offending. Whilst there were some significant increases in areas of offences against the person including domestic violence, assaults and alcohol fuelled offences, this is offending that is predominately being committed by adult offenders.

Simple measures such as fully funded diversionary programs in remote communities, late night drop-in centres and community youth centres, funding and training of a specialist youth policing team,  greater funding  for larger and more experienced and specialist Youth Outreach and Re-engagement Teams,  better funding arrangements and outsourcing of high needs trauma informed specialist residential service providers and improvements in supported bail accommodation initiatives such as the provision of qualified health professionals and social workers and a secure lock down  model facility, are but a very few changes that would make a wholesale difference to our current situation. FASD screening for all newly arrested youths and a commitment to the recommendations from the recent FASD Senate Inquiry would also be highly desirable.

The bail presumption does not commit crime; in fact the bail presumption is simply that, a presumption, that turns on ordinary application of the relevant provisions of the Bail Act. When the law is appropriately applied many of the youths arrested at first instance under the new legislative scheme will be granted bail by the Court almost immediately. But at what cost? Young people who are unduly incarcerated or over exposed to the criminal justice system eventually become dangerous recidivist offenders. Decades of failed policy and a lack of commitment to change have become the architects for the current issues we see in Alice Springs and some other localities. Rather than committing to improving the situation, yet again we see retrograde action that is destined to fail in the long term.

Marty Aust

President, Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory