Reading through submissions to the Royal Commission on the Protection and Detention of Youth People in the Northern Territory, we have come across a few consistent themes. What will the Royal Commission recommend? Here are our top 5 predictions for the upcoming report.
1. Increasing the age of criminal responsibility.
The Northern Territory’s Criminal Code Act currently makes prosecuting children as young as 10 permissible. However, the Act has a clause stating that those under 14 can be excused if they prove they didn’t have the capacity at the time to make out right from wrong.
Raising the age of criminal consent implicitly recognises that children take many years to develop their notions of right and wrong. Criminally prosecuting a child ignores the fundamental needs of young people; does it not work better to offer children strategies to improve by offering programs?
How does the age of responsibility compare to other countries?
The age of responsibility (10 years old) is fairly consistent around Australia and the Pacific. In Europe by comparison, the majority of states put criminal responsibility at age 14. Some do not criminally prosecute children until age 16. In China and Japan, the age of criminal responsibility is also set at 14. In the United States on the other hand, many states do not have a minimum age of responsibility.
In the NT Royal Commissions process, organisations such as Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC) and the Youth Justice Project have recommended that the age of criminal responsibility be raised to 12 years old. This is a step in the right direction, however, given what we understand about the hormonal changes young people experience during the years 10-17, along with changes to their schooling and peer groups after 12 or 13 years of age, is it fair to assume that children will have a broad understanding of responsibility at age 12?
2. Diversify the diversionary process.
Youth diversion does not start and end at ‘boot camps’. Multiple submissions to the Royal Commission have outlined the need for diversionary programs to work within the community, responding to the causes of youth offending. Some called for ‘boot camps’ to cease operating.
How would diversionary programs work?
Justice Reinvestment (JR) is one example that’s currently in its early stages of deployment in Katherine.
JR argues that it makes sense to not invest in prisons, instead, the government and NGOs ought to invest in the communities where young people in detention belong. Why? Because the causes that contribute to youth behaviour stem from those communities, and, more important, the solutions also lie in them. This is important because young people return to those communities, and if nothing changes, the cycle will continue.
People in Katherine, say those involved with the Justice Reinvestment project, are already in overwhelming support.
Mick Gooda has already declared that the Royal Commission will not recommend building any new prisons. But it’s unclear if the findings will progress to supporting actual communities in their responses to youth justice issues. Will the findings recognise the need to listen to more families and kin-ship carers involved in supporting communities on the ground?
3. Detention is not a place to keep young people on remand.
The numbers of young people in the NT on remand in detention centres overshadows the numbers of young people convicted of crimes in detention. This is not a new problem.
In the year 2015-16, 64% of young people in youth detention in the NT were there on remand. Rates of detainees on remand in the NT were the highest in Australia.
Examples exist elsewhere of what can be done to remedy this problem. In Victoria, Youth remand courts or processes are being employed to fast track hearings for young people who are being held in detention without a conviction. While this does not provide a real solution at the preventative and community level, it does suggest that something can be done about young people on remand languishing in detention unnecessarily.
The bottom line is that using remand as a means of housing a young person under the youth justice system should be an absolute last resort. Further, young people should not be transferred away from families and support services.
Territory Families has hinted at a solution based on expanding NGO based, bail-accomodation housing. However, Territory Families has not shown that it is listening to calls from the community and NGOs for these bail-accomodations to be run and staffed by Aboriginal people.
The question we need to ask is, is bail-accomodation housing an appropriate non-custodial alternative to the Territory’s penchant for offering custodial housing in Alice Springs and Don Dale?
4. Encourage young people to do stuff in detention.
Can you turn a detention centre into a home? Certain groups think so; some detention centres have tried.
In the US, some youth detention facilities are trying to focus on education and life and job-ready activities to encourage decision making and independence. This helps to address issues youth face in dealing with peer pressure, anger management and self-esteem. Other centres, such as some belonging to the Spanish Diagrama model, focus on retaining small detention centres near families and communities. These institutions are overwhelming staffed by educators and focus on progressing youth detainees into autonomous living arrangements as they near freedom, in order to develop decision making and responsibility.
Submissions highlight the prospect of developing small, youth development centres staffed with Aboriginal mentors, and therapists. Can we see a future where the NTRC findings suggest similar, living arrangements for youth in detention in the NT? And not just a small centre in Alice Springs and Darwin; can we see centres established in regional and remote areas?
5. Listen to young people: return them to their culture.
The Royal Commission fundamentally has to address the way young people in detention are respected, kept safe, and encouraged to grow. Here’s a small sample of statements made by young people:
“I would much prefer to be in Alice Springs where I am closer to family. I have no family here in Darwin so nobody visits me. It is also so difficult to make phone calls and it should not be so difficult. I feel lonely and miss my family.’
“I saw some kids lost without culture who would have benefitted with more cultural activities. There weren’t many Aboriginal staff at Don Dale.”
“Like, they should have more local workers working with the kids that understand and have experience and that because a lot of us kids come from broken homes…I guess they need more counselling…”
Over the past three months, young people from Central Australia have been held at Don Dale detention centre in Darwin despite a distance of over 1000 km from their families. Detainees and their families have complained of detainees being moved at short notice without the family being notified.
Consistent across submissions to the NTRC is that connection to peers, family and community groups offers more scope for positive change than detention centres, even those with improved conditions. It’s all well and good to alter the décor of a detention centre, however, countless submissions point to the need to centralise Aboriginal communities in healing and educating young people. This reaches inside detention centres and, most importantly, outside them.
Congress (CAAC) recommends support programs that allow visits from Aboriginal Elders. The NT government currently has a program where elders visit prisons. But it’s unclear how often these elders are supported to visit youth in prison. While it makes sense to improve the cultural awareness of Non-Indigenous staff in youth detention centres, it makes more sense to support Aboriginal voices and Aboriginal young people themselves to provide peer to peer counselling and support.
One young voice had this to say:
“I’d like to talk to all the young mob, tell them what I’ve experienced, what I’ve been through, like…I’d like to tell them my side and help them as well.”