NT Juvenile Detention: Royal Commission Delivers Interim Report

Thursday 6 April 2017 @ 10.40 a.m. | Crime | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure | Legal Research

Previously we have reported on the "mistreatment of children in detention at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory"and the subsequent establishment of a joint Federal and Northern Territory Governments' Royal Commission to inquire into the matter and make recommendations for change (see our article Juvenile Detention: The NT Revelations Prompt Royal Commission Response). That Royal Commission into the "Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory" has delivered an Interim Report to the Commonwealth and Northern Territory Governments on 31 March 2017.

The Interim Report was highly anticipated as The Conversation points out for two reasons:

  • The first, being concerns expressed by young people appearing before the Commission that detention centres and out-of-home care facilities are traumatic, and that urgent action is needed to change practices and remove children from these institutions and into families and the community.
  • The second being, that the newly elected NT Labor government has refrained from making any substantive changes to youth detention or child protection until the Commission’s findings are handed down.

The result being that ". . . children in the NT continue to be sent to youth detention facilities at increasing rates". The report has already also been criticised by The Conversation for not delivering any findings and not making any recommendations:

"Despite expectations, the commission’s much-anticipated interim report, released last week, did not deliver any findings or make any recommendations."

How the Royal Commission Came About - A Brief Recap

The path to a Royal Commission started on 25 July 2016, when the ABC’s Four Corners aired shocking images of children and young people in detention in the NT. Resulting from the reactions to the Four Corners program, on 1 August 2016, the Administrator of the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia signed the Letters Patent on behalf of the Governor-General, which set out the Terms of Reference for a Royal Commission (see our article: Royal Commission into NT Youth Detention: Terms of Reference Released, Commissioner Resigns). On 3 August 2016, the NT Government established a Board of Inquiry with almost identical terms of reference and the Honourable Margaret White AO and Mr Mick Gooda were appointed as the Commissioners. Finally, on 9 February 2017, by way of Amending Letters Patent, the Commission was granted an amended reporting date of 1 August 2017 by the Governor-General. The Commission, having now delivered its Interim Report, must deliver its Final Report by 1 August 2017.

How the Commission Sees Itself Operating

In the Interim Report, the Commissioners indicate that, to date, their main focus has been on "youth detention in the Northern Territory" and that focus in coming months will move "more directly on child protection matters". They also indicate that:

". . . making recommendations that will lead to sustainable change will require consideration of the specific challenges faced by children and young people in the Northern Territory. . . . The objectives, however, are clear. The Northern Territory deserves a safer community where youth crime is at a minimum."

The Commission is clear that its Final Report, will be the report that puts forward detailed recommendations.

The Commission notes in the Interim Report that its Terms of Reference ". . . extend well beyond the specific events at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre that were the catalyst for establishing the Commission". The Commission sees itself as being ". . . tasked with exposing any systemic failures and with making recommendations to improve laws, policies and practices that will result in a safer future for children and young people in the Northern Territory". The scope of the Commission’s task is seen by the Commission as ". . . extensive, spanning both the child protection and youth detention systems over a 10-year period". 

Some of the Commission's Interim Observations

The pathway from protection to detention - according to the Commission's report, children and young people who have entered the child protection system are over represented in youth detention. This applies in both the NT and in other parts of Australia. The Commission intends to consider what needs to change in the current child protection system to ". . . break the cycle for children and young people going from care into detention".

The need for community safety - according to the Commission's report, the ultimate goals of any youth justice system are to reduce youth crime and build safer communities. The Commission is considering advice ". . . that a greater focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice is likely to lead to safer communities", and is looking to hear evidence on these issues in upcoming hearings.

On questions of remoteness and isolation where such means that there are often limited temporary and permanent solutions for child protection, and greater challenges to delivering effective early intervention the Commission has observed that:

". . . responding to the issues of remoteness in the NT will be a fundamental consideration for the Commission when making its recommendations."

The disengagement of communities from decision-making was a matter raised many times during consultation according to the Commission in its Interim Report. The Commission is to investigate this issue further and make recommendations  in its Final Report.

Other areas of observations by the Commission relate to:

  • The over-representation of Aboriginal children and young people in detention in the NT;
  • Health, alcohol and other drug issues, especially among indigenous youth;
  • Youth Justice Detention Practices;
  • The quality and nature of detention facilities for young offenders; and
  • Access to culture and diversion programs.

The Commission's Final Report due in August 2017 will be even more anticipated and will be the next chance to ". . . dignify the young people whose suffering hastened the inquiry". As such, it is needed not only to make findings and recommendations recognising the harm inflicted and promote reparations, accountability and a shift in the approach to youth detention and child protection in the NT, but it must also be ". . . a platform to convey the words of these young people whose voices were silenced for too long".

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