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Aboriginal, community and justice groups urge NT government to go further on youth justice reform

Giovanni Torre -

A coalition of Aboriginal, community, justice and human rights organisations says that as new NT laws to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years come into effect this week, there is an urgent need for the NT government to "work with Aboriginal communities and organisations to ensure supports and services are available when and where children need them".

The coalition - the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Jesuit Social Services, the Human Rights Law Centre, NTCOSS, NT Legal Aid Commission, Change The Record, and Danila Dilba - noted that while raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 is a step in the right direction, Australian laws are out of touch with child rights and international standards which require at a minimum the age be set at 14 years.

Under laws which came into effect Tuesday, 10 and 11 year old children in the Northern Territory can no longer be arrested, charged with criminal offences or sent to prison. Children under 12 with prior criminal records will also have their records expunged, giving them a fresh start.

The justice coalition noted in a statement on Tuesday that evidence shows any engagement with the criminal legal system as a child, including the arrest or interrogation of a child by police, can cause harm.

The group described the age of criminal responsibility reform as "an important first step to a smarter, more humane and restorative approach that keeps children, families and communities safe", and urged for the focus to now turn to "working with, and properly resourcing, services on the ground to ensure children and families have their needs met, in their communities and on Country".

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency Principal Legal Officer Nick Espie said most Aboriginal kids forced through the NT criminal legal system at a young age are living with unmet health, disability and trauma needs.

"The vast majority are kids also in the child protection system as victims/survivors of harm. These kids need culturally responsive services and support in their communities that can help them heal, recover and meet their full potential," he said.

"Changes to laws to raise the age must be complimented by a service response led by Aboriginal people and organisations. These kids deserve better, not simply made to navigate complex systems that fail them.

"NAAJA welcomes this long overdue reform that was recommended by the Don Dale Royal Commission 5 years ago. We look forward to work being done to bring us in line with child rights and international law, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14."

NTCOSS chief executive Dr Stephanie Kelly said the change signals a move closer to the 2019 recommendations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, including that all countries increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years of age.

"It is about intervening earlier to wrap children and families up in supports that disrupt any future contact with the justice system. It will be important to ensure that the right services are available to the children and families concerned if the new legislation is to lead to improved outcomes for children at risk and ultimately, better solutions for children, young people, families and communities," she said.

National Director of Change the Record, Maggie Munn, said the status quo "is completely failing our kids".

"Almost 100 percent of children behind bars in the NT are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander - they are being denied their childhoods, a chance to learn from their mistakes and even their rights to fresh air and sunlight. While the changes today are a step in the right direction there is an urgent need to go further," she said.

"The NT government must work with Aboriginal communities on the ground to see our kids get the care and support they need to thrive."

Amala Ramarathinam of the Human Rights Law Centre said raising the age of criminal responsibility "recognises that young children should never have been criminalised for what are health, education and wellbeing issues".

"The Fyles government must now direct government agencies to work closely with Aboriginal organisations and services to implement a strong, evidence-based and well-connected service response that supports the needs of young children and their families," she said.

"The Fyles government has made the Northern Territory the first state or territory to raise the age in Australia. They must follow through by showing real leadership and raising the age to 14 without exceptions."

The groups called on the NT government to:


- Establish referral pathways and information sharing: Work with service providers on the ground to create referral pathways and enhance information sharing in ways that deliver positive benefits to children and their families. By doing so, children and their families can access the necessary support and services when and where they need;

- Empower Aboriginal service providers: Resource local Aboriginal service providers to deliver culturally-appropriate and holistic responses, specifically tailored to the needs of Aboriginal children and their families;

- Implement transparent monitoring and evaluation: Commit to rigorous and transparent monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of referral pathways and diversionary efforts. This will help ensure that the initiatives are effective and can be continuously improved upon;

- Review and Raise the Age further: Demonstrate a commitment to progress by conducting a review of the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility, with the objective of raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14. This would bring us in line with the medical evidence on child brain development and our obligations to protect children's rights; and

- Increase early intervention and prevention services for Aboriginal children: Guided by the Generational Strategy, increase diagnostic and treatment services delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children by ACCHOs. Young people in detention have high levels of neurodisability and complex health issues which worsen in detention, which is a non-therapeutic environment.

Minister for Territory Families Kate Worden told National Indigenous Times that the NT government "is breaking the cycle of youth crime through early intervention, prevention and diversion".

"If a child aged under 12 engages in concerning behaviour, they will be dealt with by NT Police and Territory Families through referring the child and their family to the On The Right Track program," she said.

"On The Right Track officers will be based in Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek. Officers will be supported to travel to communities where there may be an increase in offending among 10 and 11 year olds.

"The (NT) government is investing $5 million for two years to support On the Right Track. Two years will allow the program to be established and properly evaluated to ensure it is making a positive difference to the safety of Territorians."

The Minister said the legislation was based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, and noted that as of July 31 there were no children aged 10 or 11 in youth detention in the Northern Territory.

Amnesty International also welcomed the change while urging the Territory government to go further.

Amnesty International Australia's Indigenous Rights Campaigner Kacey Teerman said families across the Northern Territory can now "find relief that their 10 and 11 year old children are safe from criminalisation and incarceration".

"This is a significant achievement for the campaign to raise the age and for the children, families and advocates who bravely testified at the Royal Commission into Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory," she said.

"Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 is a start, but is ultimately a continuation of the Northern Territory's immoral, harmful policy of child incarceration that not only doesn't curb youth offending but sees children three times more likely to end up in prison as adults.

"The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that arrest and detention must be measures of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. The longer that children can remain out of prison and in their communities, the better chance they have to grow up to be healthy, happy adults."

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