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Landmark alternative justice process set for NT island

Neve Brissenden -

Young men caught in cycles of crime fuelled by alcohol on a remote Northern Territory island will soon be able to serve some of their prison sentences on home soil.

The NT government has partnered with the Anindilyakwa Land Council on Groote Eylandt to address a growing social problem in the community.

"We've still got young people stealing cars and breaking into houses in town," Matthew McKenzie told AAP on Friday on Groote Eylandt.

Mr McKenzie is heading the NT's first legislated community justice group, designed to advise the newly re-established community court overseen by NT Chief Judge Elizabeth Morris.

Judge Morris has her work cut out for her, required to now sentence some male adult offenders in the community court while balancing justice and cultural concerns of the community group.

She can choose to send low-risk offenders to the Island's new healing centre, set to open in March and available to house 32 offenders.

Offenders will have access to cultural healing programs and group therapy as well as drug and alcohol services.

In the NT, prisons are packed to the brim, largely overcrowded, and understaffed with Indigenous offenders making up 80 per cent of the prison population.

Almost 100 per cent of children in youth detention are Indigenous.

Recidivism rates for Indigenous offenders are also sky-high, with six out of 10 adult offenders likely to return to prison within two years.

In Alice Springs, an alternative to custody program for women is achieving remarkable results.

Instead of being sentenced to jail, the women can live at a custodial facility that runs programs to deal with addiction, domestic violence, financial insecurity, housing and family matters.

It boasts a 90 per cent success rate of reducing recidivism in the 12 months after people in the program are released.

Eloise Page from Drug and Alcohol Services Association said the alternative custody programs are vital to reducing crime.

"Pretty much all crime we see is linked to drugs or alcohol," she said.

"Prison doesn't heal people, it can't."

On Groote Eylandt, home to the world's largest manganese mine, crime has been decreasing, thanks to the beginnings of the local decision-making agreement with the NT government.

Since the agreement, the traditional owners have overseen a range of community-led youth justice initiatives focused on diversion and early intervention.

A report released by the Insight Centre in March last year found there a 95 per cent reduction in youth crime on Groote Eylandt over the past five years.

There is no youth offender from the island being held in Don Dale as of January 2024, something the locals are proud of.

"It has taken us so many years to get back law and justice on the archipelago," Anindilyakwa Land Council chair Tony Wurramarrba said on Friday.

"For too long now, we have watched mainly young Anindilyakwa men go back and forth to prison in Darwin.

"This is a broken model and we have had no power to fix it until now."

The NT government has invested $13 million over four years including an infrastructure contribution, and $11 million in operational funding.

The Community Court and Law and Justice Group have received an initial funding of $1.12 million to support their work.

"There is hope for our people by doing things like (this)," Attorney-General Chansey Paech said on Friday.

"Embedding Aboriginal people into the justice system so their voices must be heard."

Neve Brissenden - AAP

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