The Royal Commission on the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT needs and deserves careful consideration and analysis. 

It tells a story that must be heard not only in Darwin, but in every state and territory across Australia. 

At every level, the commission found punitive rather than rehabilitative approaches in the protection and detention system – approaches that continually fail children, families, and communities. 

The commission sounds a clarion call that a child’s wellbeing must be at the centre of Australia’s protection and detention systems. 

Such change requires leadership, sustained effort and long-term funding from the Commonwealth and the states. 

On this issue, national leadership is essential, not optional. 

As a key tool in that task, the federal government would do well to move away from its insistence that there is no need and no value in setting national justice targets, agreed by all jurisdictions. Progress on the targets should be subject to annual report and review by First Ministers in COAG. 

Twenty-six years ago the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made 339 recommendations. It pains me that so many of our recommendations have not been implemented. 

Two of those recommendations, in particular, that should be paramount in the workings of our justice system are: 

Duty of care for Aboriginal people who come into contact with the justice system; and 

The use of imprisonment as a last resort. 

Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the number of Indigenous Australians in prison has doubled.  Most disturbing is the detention of our young people. 

Every Australian has been shocked by the images from Don Dale of young boys being stripped naked, tear-gassed, spit hooded and held in solitary confinement. 

The royal commission found the “detention system failed to comply with basic binding human rights standards in the treatment of children and young people and the commission has found that children were denied basic needs, such as water, and that isolation continues to be used punitively…” 

The duty of care for those children has been abrogated. 

In my maiden speech to the Senate, I stated: “I will be working in this place to: make sure that fewer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are locked up in our prisons.” 

Bringing the Australian judicial and custodial systems on that journey has been challenging. All too often we have been confronted by the callousness of our institutional frameworks when it comes to dealing with our Indigenous young people. 

The way Indigenous people are treated by our justice system comes as a shock to a country that imagines it to be a land of just and fair-minded people. 

For most Australians, this is a fair land. The general sense is that the police are there to uphold the laws. 

Most Australians have no cause to fear that their children may be removed, their bags randomly searched in shopping centres, their parents and siblings being sent to prison. 

When they see police arrive, most Australians feel safe. 

But for a small percentage of people in this country – this is not the case. 

First Nations People make up 3 per cent of the Australian population, but 27 per cent of the prison population. 

Indigenous children are around seven times more likely to end up in out-of-home care and 26 per cent more likely to end up in youth detention. 

Aboriginal young people, in some communities, are being racially targeted. They feel they are under suspicion and surveillance wherever they go and whatever they do. They live in a different world. They live in a world that is constantly expecting them to do something wrong: to break the law, to be charged, detained, brought before a court and then sent off to detention where, we learn in the commission’s report, they are brutalised. That’s no life for a young person. 

The “do the crime, do the time” argument makes little sense if our detention system does not reduce the rate of youth crime, nor address underlying factors that contribute to children in detention. There is little evidence that being put behind bars helps an individual to come out rehabilitated. 

A detention system that further alienates and traumatises vulnerable children is wasteful of public funds and needs to be rethought. 

The royal commission estimates that if its recommendations were implemented, there would be a saving of $335 million by 2027. 

A system geared to punishment rather than healing will always fail, because it turns a blind eye to the underlying impacts of disadvantage, trauma and complex needs. 

The nexus between children who are in out-of-home care who because they do not have a safe and loving family, who end up in detention, cannot be ignored. Children receiving child protection services were 23 times more likely to also be under youth detention orders, with almost half of young people in detention also in the child protection system in the same year. 

The royal commission has made recommendations which go to the heart of children and community wellbeing, including: 

Closing the current Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and High-Security Unit. 

Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 and only allowing children under 14 years to be detained for serious crimes. 

Increasing engagement with and involvement of Aboriginal organisations in child protection, youth justice and detention. 

Establishing a network of Family Support Centres to provide place-based services to families across the Northern Territory. 

A paradigm shift in youth justice to increase diversion and therapeutic approaches. 

Providing alternatives to detention through diversionary pathways and community-controlled options is not about being soft on crime. It is a myth that the majority of youths in detention are in there for serious offences.  On an average day in the NT, Aboriginal young people made up 96 per cent of the detention population and 71 per cent of those young people are unsentenced. 

We should look to learn from our neighbours in New Zealand who have adopted a system that puts children’s well-being at the centre. Since 2011, there has been a 38 per cent reduction in youth crime. 

We should look to Canada which has transformed its youth justice system from being custody focused to one that offers a broad range of community-based options and where youth crime dropped by 46 per cent from 2003 to 2015. 

Such an approach would provide training for all workers who are at the coal face of the issue, so that police and detention staff are better able to communicate and create a safe environment for the care and rehabilitation of our young people. 

It should allow judges and magistrates to exercise their discretion to come up with solutions for rehabilitation and treatment, to help people recover, as opposed to being locked into punitive mandatory sentencing. 

I know firsthand the challenges of the work the commissioners have undertaken, and their efforts should be commended. 

I also express my respect for the courage and strength of the many witnesses who came before the commission and told their stories. The young witnesses who had experienced the worst of Don Dale particularly showed courage and resilience. 

I am hopeful that the report will be a moment of change for the protection of children and communities in the Northern Territory and across Australia. These issues do not begin and end at the Northern Territory border.  The protection and detention of young people is not an Aboriginal Issue. It is an Australian one. 

We’ve seen recently how the voice of the people can stand up for equality. It is time now to overturn the injustice of punishing the most vulnerable in our society. All good Australians, fair-minded Australians, should stand up against the injustice revealed in this report. 

We must never forget that we are talking about children who need, and deserve love, protection and care. 

This Opinion Piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 2017. 



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