The ‘Hardened’ Youth Justice Officer

A segment on ABC radio broadcast on Thursday commented on how things are going in the NT Royal Commission hearings so far. The Northern Correspondent for The Australian, Amos Aikman highlighted that Justice Kelly, of the NT Supreme Court, was siding on most occasions with the Youth Justice Officers.


Testimonies given to date include young people being lifted up and slammed against a wall, being kicked, being grabbed by the neck, being mechanically restrained, being isolated for long periods, being asked by a guard to perform oral sex, and being denied access to water or going to the toilet.


Amos Aikman defended one guard’s behaviour suggesting he ‘didn’t mean to do the wrong thing’ and that he was a ‘pretty good guy who meant well’. He went on to quote Justice Kelly, who offered absolution for the Youth Justice Officers involved in the ‘unpleasant treatment’ of young people in detention, because the young people were ‘nonetheless fairly hardened criminals’.


#ShutYouthPrisons, a grassroots community movement calling for alternatives to the prison system in responding to young people engaging in what gets called criminal behaviour, questions the ethical stance of the Judge. In her statement, Justice Kelly contextualises and calls for understanding and empathy, regarding the behaviour of adults in paid positions of power. However, she does not do the same for young people in our community, whose behaviour also occurs in a context and also requires our understanding and empathy.


The context of the Don Dale Detention centre, as alluded to repeatedly in the evidence heard so far as part of the NT Royal Commission, is a culture that perpetuates dehumanizing practices. Professor Rynn, Director of the Youth Forensic Service at Griffiths University, adds that the Detention Centre is ‘structurally racist’. It is inferred by the repeated questions ‘What is it about Don Dale…?’ that Youth Justice Officers in this context are more likely to use violence.


The context of living in the Northern Territory is one where racism runs through every layer of society. Aboriginal people face the injustice of colonisation including violent invasion, land and resources being stolen, culture and practices sabotaged, and barriers to participating in the society imposed on them at every turn. Young people are growing up in a community where they are vilified, marginalised, and oppressed. What responses might we expect in these conditions?


Amos Aikman highlighted the ‘community concern regarding youth crime’, and deliberated how the community might be convinced to alter their perspectives around how to respond to these young people. Amos, #ShutYouthPrisons suggest that media providing a more rigorous report on the discourses of criminality, and nuances of the justice system would be a good start.


If some sectors of the community hold fears of the ‘dangerous criminal’ at large, who needs to be removed from the community for everyone else’s safety, this is typically linked to those people who have used violence. In this regard, it is important to highlight that most young people who are incarcerated are not charged with violent offences. Conversely, we have seen and heard about acts by Youth Justice Officers that in some cases constitute torture, and these people are not called criminals.


If we are to expect that when a person causes harm, they are held accountable for that harm, it becomes very confusing when a Judge implies that some people have permission to use violence, and others are deserving of the violence used against them. Moreover, it is understood that the culture of prisons is steeped in violence, and it’s fairly widely acknowledged that more violence does not stop violence, so let’s talk about the alternatives.



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