Juvenile Detention: The NT Revelations Prompt Royal Commission Response

Thursday 28 July 2016 @ 11.15 a.m. | Crime | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure

Following the ABC's Four Corners program on Monday night (25 July 2016) detailing graphically the mistreatment of children in detention at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory, it is now clear that there will be a joint Federal and Northern Territory Governments' Royal Commission into the matter. The Prime Minister (the PM) in a Joint Statement with the Federal Attorney General (the Federal AG) has already made an announcement to this effect in a Media Release, stating that:

"The Commonwealth Government will establish a Royal Commission, in co-operation with the Government of the Northern Territory into the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre".

Further, in the joint Media Release the PM stated that the key concerns were that:

"Every child in our justice system must be treated with humanity and respect at all times."

He indicated that it was the Federal Government's intent that the two Governments move quickly to finalise the proposed Commission's Terms of Reference and also find an "eminent person" to run the proposed investigation. Further, the PM indicated that previous inquiries conducted within the Northern Territory (the NT) into the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre had: ". . . failed to identify the nature and extent of the behaviour highlighted by Four Corners".

It was because of this "failure", according to the PM,  that the powers of a Royal Commission were being proposed. The powers would include the ability to "compel evidence" and so help to identify the ". . . systemic failures at the institution". The joint Media Release stated:

"It is important that the causes and failures at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre are identified to provide lessons to other correctional institutions in Australia to ensure they are never repeated. This needs to be a thorough inquiry which exposes what occurred and why it remained concealed for so long."

Reaction - The NT Government

Mr Giles the NT Chief Minister (the Chief Minister) has, in his own Media Release of 26 July 2016, stated that:

"Like all Australians I was shocked and disgusted by tonight's Four Corner’s program. . . . A community is judged by the way it treats its children and serious questions were raised by ABC tonight."

He also  however, sought to justify what he said was a tough approach by saying:

"Equally the Northern Territory Government does not resile from its tough approach to those who don’t want to respect others people’s property or safety. . . . But tonight questions were raised about what is going on in our juvenile detention system that date back to 2010."

Like the Federal Government, he called for an investigation of the matters raised.

ABC News also reported that Mr Elferink, the NT's Corrections Minister "had been sacked" by the Chief Minister. A report latter clarified that Mr Elferink had been divested of the Youth Offenders portfolio (now the responsibility of the Chief Minister), which was one of several portfolios, including Attorney General held by Mr Elferink.

The Chief Minister has said after a tour of the Don Dale Facility (on 27 July 2016) that the NT ". . . would build a new youth detention facility, with planning to commence immediately . . ." and that he had asked police to investigate whether the corrections officers featured in the ABC Four Corners program had broken the law and if charges should made.

He went on to say that any investigation should be of the whole child protection system in the NT and the whole corrections system and not just on the matters arising from the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. He has also made the further point that the issues raised are matters going back to 2010 and so were also around in the time of prior governments.

Reaction - The Legal System

The Australian Bar Association (the ABA) in a Media Release of 26 July 2016, has thrown its support behind a Federal Royal Commission saying it:

". . . welcomes Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull’s announcement this morning for a Royal Commission into abuse at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale youth detention centre."

Further, in addition to supporting the call for a Royal Commission the ABA in its Media Release also called for immediate action to address certain key issues including:

  • an immediate commitment to building a fit for purpose youth detention facility in the Northern Territory which is to be staffed by appropriately trained personnel;
  • putting in place diversion and education programs to prevent youth coming into contact with the justice system in the first place;
  • providing all detainees with access to rehabilitation and education programs to minimise the risk of re- offending and to assist with reintegration back into society; and
  • the immediate suspension of the use of solitary confinement, spit-hoods and mechanical restraints.

In the ABA's view changing the emphasis in youth detention to:

". . . the rehabilitation of young offenders and the prevention of youth coming into justice system, not the detention and maltreatment of young people."

The announcement of the Federal Royal Commission was also reported as being welcomed by the President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs who stated:

"I'm very thankful . . . I think it's an illustration of leadership, where we can start to, as the Prime Minister says, get to the bottom of this, . . ."

Further, as the story has developed there have been calls for the scope of the investigation to go beyond the NT, especially by Aboriginal and Torres Islander interests and advocates, the view being that while the NT might be the "worse" example "they're by no means alone . . .".

The Federal Opposition has also supported the Royal Commission, and has also supported such an investigation taking a wider scope beyond the events at Don Dale, with Acting Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek reported as saying:

"Federal Labor will cooperate fully with the Government to establish a royal commission as soon as possible, . . . We stand ready to work with the Government on the terms of reference of the commission, which should not be limited to the incidents at Don Dale but should include systemic issues in the juvenile justice system."

Reaction - The Media

Writing for the Conversation Michelle Graten states:

"It is surely extraordinary it took a Four Corners program, excellent as it was, to force the attention of Northern Territory and federal politicians on to the scandal of the NT detention system when most of the evidence had been before their eyes for a long time."

She then goes on to list the various prior reports, inquiries and indications of mistreatment known to politicians and law makers since 2010 which have either been played down, avoided or denied and makes the point that "scepticism" would be an understandable public reaction.

Given the above it will be interesting to see what the Federal A-G produces as terms of reference for the Royal Commission and who will be chosen to head the investigation. 

TimeBase is an independent, privately owned Australian legal publisher specialising in the online delivery of accurate, comprehensive and innovative legislation research tools including LawOne and unique Point-in-Time Products.

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