NACCHO #DonDaleKids :Why ? are so many Indigenous kids in detention in the NT in the first place?

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” The problem is also much deeper, and points to endemic issues with removing Indigenous children from their families and communities and placing them in coercive environments and with non-Indigenous families.

Across Australia, governments regard locking up vulnerable Indigenous children as a legitimate exercise of state power. This practice has quickly descended into the legalisation of physical restraints, spit-hoods and ongoing isolation of young people in prison cells.

Systemic incarceration and removal from family of Indigenous young people need to be redressed. What the NT experience with state interventions has revealed is that rather than protecting young people, it has placed them at greater risk of mistreatment and trauma.”

Thalia Anthony  Associate Professor in Law, University of Technology Sydney

Read all 13 NACCHO NT Detention articles here

What is being done – right now- to protect these children from further abuse?”

We have seen how dangerous the detention culture is for children, a culture that sees nothing wrong with using teargas on kids and laughing about it.

That brutal culture goes right through the system – from the MPs at the top who voted in May for the use of restraint chairs, down to the staff member who threatens to ‘pulverise’ a child in his care. That culture won’t have changed overnight, and I’m worried about the impact on children still in detention. These children need protection right now.”

Rodney Dillon, Indigenous Rights Adviser at Amnesty International Australia.

Amnesty International understands that 39 children remain in detention in the Northern Territory. Almost all children in NT detention are Indigenous.

Why are so many Indigenous kids in detention in the NT in the first place

The terms of reference for the royal commission into the Northern Territory’s youth detention regime are notably silent on the over-representation of Indigenous children in these systems.

It is not simply that vulnerable children are in custody and mistreated – it is that vulnerable Indigenous children bear the brunt of this punishment.

Across Australia, Indigenous children constitute at least 54% of children in juvenile detention centres. Indigenous children are 26 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in detention.

A royal commission set up to examine this system must interrogate the failures of an interventionist law-and-order approach for Indigenous children and their families, and identify pathways for taking Indigenous children out of jail and returning them to their families.

What is the state of play?

The proportion of Indigenous children in penal detention centres in the NT is higher than in any other state or territory: 97% of children in NT juvenile detention centres are Indigenous.

The territory’s youth detention rate is six times the national average. It has the highest number of children in juvenile detention per 100,000 ten-to-19-year-olds in Australia. Of these, approximately 60% are in the care of the NT’s Department of Children and Families.

The NT juvenile detention centres are overwhelming filled with children who have not been proven guilty of a crime or sentenced. Rather, they are detained while on remand.

Although not as high, these figures are consistent with the over-representation of Indigenous children nationally – both in juvenile detention centres and under child protection orders.

Over the past decade, due to some key shifts in Indigenous policy and criminal laws, the number of Indigenous children in NT juvenile detention centres has more than doubled. Any examination of the reasons for the over-representation of Indigenous children in prisons and out-of-home care needs to consider these shifts.

There has been a recent surge in law-and-order approaches in Aboriginal communities in the NT. In mid-2006, the federal government deployed Federal Police to NT communities and committed A$130 million to law-and-order strategies. In 2007, it embarked on the Northern Territory Intervention.

The government introduced legislation giving extended powers to police in Aboriginal communities. It prohibited certain information on Indigenous background from being considered when determining bail and sentencing Indigenous people.

The Intervention required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, because the policies were racially discriminatory. Most of these measures have since been enshrined in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act.

This act also provides special policing powers for designated “alcohol-protected areas”, which cover most NT Aboriginal communities. The legislation created a lawful context for discriminatory treatment in the policing and sentencing of Indigenous people.

Since the Intervention, there has been a steep rise in the criminalisation of Indigenous young people. This includes a 100% increase in traffic and vehicle convictions for young people, such as driving unregistered vehicles or driving without a licence.

In Indigenous communities with the newly established police stations, Indigenous people have complained the police were “heavy-handed with children” when investigating a crime.

The federal and NT governments did not match their investment in police with an investment in Corrective Services to facilitate diversionary programs or home detention in Indigenous communities. This has meant Indigenous young people who are found guilty of an offence are either fined or go to prison. This contravenes the NT’s Youth Justice Act, which promotes the principle that penal custody should be a sentence of “last resort”.

Another key contributor to the increase of Indigenous children in juvenile detention is the NT government’s changes to its Bail Act. Similar to other states and territories, there are several exceptions that undermine the right to bail for young people. These include where offenders have been charged with drug offences or are repeat serious offenders (where they have committed a repeat serious offence within ten years).

In relation to sentencing, young offenders who are sentenced in the Supreme Court and convicted of a violent offence are subjected to the NT government’s regime of mandatory sentencing. This was introduced in 2013 to ensure custodial sentences are imposed, including on children who appear before the territory’s Supreme Court.

How to reduce the numbers

There are several legal changes that could dramatically and instantly reduce the number of Indigenous children in custody.

The first is to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 15. This would be consistent with many European countries, where it has not led to greater offending.

Evidence shows prisons are more likely to contribute to recidivism. Young people who participated in a juvenile pre-court diversion scheme in the NT were found to be less likely to reoffend.

Second, all young people should have a right to bail. By taking all young people out of remand, the numbers in juvenile detention centres would be reduced to a small fraction of what they are currently.

Outside the legal system, strengthening Indigenous communities to provide support and programs for vulnerable young people is critical for improving the prospects for Indigenous youth. This includes therapeutic and healing programs relating to trauma, mental health and disability issues – including foetal alcohol disorder spectrum, hearing loss, cognitive impairment and other forms of brain injury.

There needs to be greater Indigenous community control over child safety issues. This was a key recommendation of the Little Children Are Sacred report, which instead triggered a law-and-order response (the Intervention) in 2007. State interventions in the lives of young people have proven unsuccessful, if not diabolical, in protecting Indigenous children.

The royal commission’s terms of reference run the risk of characterising the NT as a “bad apple”. However, the extent of the mistreatment of Indigenous young people in juvenile detention centres is much broader than the Don Dale detention facility.

NT Government must protect children still at risk say Amnesty

The Giles Government must tell the public what steps it has taken to protect children from further abuse in juvenile detention, not only in Darwin but Alice Springs, since the furore around the Northern Territory detention system erupted 11 days ago.

While the announcement of the Royal Commission is a welcome step, the process so far has done little to immediately help the children still locked up in the Northern Territory.

Brutal culture

Amnesty International understands that 39 children remain in detention in the Northern Territory. Almost all children in NT detention are Indigenous.

“What is being done – right now- to protect these children from further abuse?” asked Rodney Dillon, Indigenous Rights Adviser at Amnesty International Australia.

“We have seen how dangerous the detention culture is for children, a culture that sees nothing wrong with using teargas on kids and laughing about it.

“That brutal culture goes right through the system – from the MPs at the top who voted in May for the use of restraint chairs, down to the staff member who threatens to ‘pulverise’ a child in his care. That culture won’t have changed overnight, and I’m worried about the impact on children still in detention. These children need protection right now.”

Action needed

Since the Four Corners program aired, the NT Government announced it was reviewing, then banning, restraint chairs, 10 weeks after legislating to confirm the legality of their use.

The Government also briefly considered moving children from the current Don Dale detention centre, the former Berrimah Prison once described as being fit only for bulldozing. It has also announced it will build a purpose-built facility to house juveniles.

The children in Don Dale detention centre should be urgently moved to a more appropriate facility, in consultation with local Indigenous health and legal organisations.

Prevention is the answer

“It shouldn’t be that hard to provide family support, social services and rehabilitation for just 40 kids and families. These children have problems, of course. They needed help, but they were let down. Most children would not end up in detention if these families and their communities had been supported, before children got to the point of committing offences. Prevention is the answer,” said Rodney Dillon.

The Federal Government, too, must not use the machinations of the Royal Commission as an excuse to stall any longer in enacting urgent change to protect these children.

Malcolm Turnbull and the Federal Government have had an option open since 2009 that could put a stop to abuses in detention across Australia: ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. After ratification, independent monitoring of all places of detention becomes mandatory, so the type of conditions suffered by the Don Dale children could not go unreported.

“It is not good enough that all levels of Government have claimed ignorance of detention abuse for so long; But, now that there is no hiding from the shameful truth, we must see real and urgent action, without waiting for the Royal Commission to have impact,” said Rodney Dillon.

Background

The NT Government has chosen not to fund youth services and programs which would work with children and young people to give them every chance of success.

As the NT News recently observed, this government allocated $1.2 million towards youth justice programs in 2016/17, down from the $2 million spent in 2015/16.

A $3 million funding cut in 2012 forced the closure of a youth drop-in centre and the end of night-time activities run by local Aboriginal organisations in Alice Springs.

While they cut services that give kids a safe, supportive space, a sense of purpose and hope for the future, the NT government is investing heavily in ensuring these children sink further into the quicksand that is the justice system.

Instead of investing in helping to pull them out of this quicksand, the government is planning to build a bigger sandpit.

In the recent budget, they allocated an extra $2.5 million to “meet demand” at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and $4.5 million in operational funding for the Territory’s prisons to cater for “increased prisoner numbers.”

 

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