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Marion Scrymgour: youth laws aren't working in the NT

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous MP Marion Scrymgour has argued children who commit crimes need to be treated with "tough love", arguing raising the age of criminal responsibility in the NT was failing, in an extraordinary broadside against the NT Labor Government.

It comes as the NT Government opened a $32 million youth justice facility in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) on Wednesday to ensure "young people face the consequences of their actions while getting the support they need to stop offending".

Ms Scrymgour, a Labor MP whose vast federal electorate of Lingiari takes in Mparntwe - which has seen reports of increased violence and crime involving youths – told The Australian on Wednesday there had to be a "rethink" on how children were dealt with in the criminal justice system.

"(A) bit of tough love never hurt anyone, and I think that's what needs to come into this equation," she said.

"We've got to stop thinking we're dealing with little angels here … When you look at those photos they're laughing and smiling, they think it's a joke, and it's not, because they could have an accident and one of them could get killed."

Ms Scrymgour was responding to reports in the same paper that children as young as ten were committing crimes, including car theft and robbery.

"We've got to stop pussyfooting around here and thinking that these kids are going and they're being taken home to a responsible adult because in a lot of these cases there isn't a responsible adult there and the reality is these kids don't listen," she said.

Whilst not directly calling for a reversal of the NT criminal age of responsibility - currently sitting at 12 with significant carveouts - the Labor MP said: "At the moment, obviously lifting the age of criminal responsibility isn't working."

"(I)f we've got these kids out on the street and there's still this issue; obviously, we've still got problems," she said. "Labor is talking about a review of the Youth Justice Act, there are some critical areas in the Youth Justice Act which can be done now … it doesn't need to be put off for 12 months."

NT Chief Minister Eva Lawler on Wednesday (Image: ABC News/Xavier Martin)

Earlier this month, NT Chief Minister Eva Lawler promised a comprehensive review of the Youth Justice Act, saying it would take a detailed look at bail and family responsibility, and would hear from both experts and the wider community. It is understood the review will be carried out by an independent consultancy and will not be returned before the August election.

In announcing the new Mparntwe youth facilities on Wednesday, Chief Minister Lawler conceded any "crime crisis" was a failure of government. She argued in a "perfect world" children and youths wouldn't be incarcerated and cited historical wrongs amongst a myriad of reasons for child offending.

"Let's not forget the history of Australia was built on us being colonised by a detention facility from England, so we have had young people, we've had people in trouble with the law for the whole history of Australia," Chief Minister Lawler said, as reported by The Australian.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) said they welcomed the of the newly redeveloped facility, which the government argues will offer a therapeutic and culturally sensitive youth justice model but cautioned against using prisons as a final resort for preventing crime.

NAAJA Principal Legal Officer Jared Sharp told National Indigenous Times more than half of all minors released from prison return within a year, highlighting youth detention facilities alone was not the answer.

"The only way to stop this cycle is by investing in solutions that do work – drug and alcohol counselling, behaviour change programs, adequate healthcare, stable housing, education, training, and employment," Mr Sharpe said.

"And the failed laws and policies that have resulted in the disproportionate imprisonment of Aboriginal people must be urgently changed."

Mr Sharp said the NT spends more on youth detention that any other jurisdiction in Australia, and the cost to taxpayers was rising "alongside the rate at which we are locking up mostly Aboriginal children."

Chief Minister Lawler also confirmed the notorious Don Dale prison, which has seen significant abuses on Indigenous children - explicitly detailed in the 2016 Royal Commission - is slated for demolition after a new youth detention facility is opened in Darwin - scheduled for the middle of this year.

"I want to wipe out of our lexicon and our language in the Northern Territory the word 'Don Dale,'" the Chief Minister said on Wednesday.

Earlier this month, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (Congress) congratulated the NT government for implementing the "evidence-based restrictions on alcohol in Alice Springs" 12 months ago, arguing it had resulted in a "major reduction in crime, including domestic and family violence."

Congress chief executive, Donna Ah Chee said: "A year on, the official figures show how effective the Government's action has been in keeping the people of Alice Springs safe."

Ms Scrymgour's comments have come during a spate of conservative opposition parties nationwide attacking proposed implementations of raising the age of criminal responsibility - which is supported by medical experts, Indigenous NGOs and human rights groups - amidst a wider attack on youth justice.

However, her comments are notable for being a Labor MP criticising a Labor government in the NT.

"I'm not left, and I'm not woke, I just think we've got to hurry up and stop thinking that all of these measures are working, because they're not," she told The Australian.

Nationwide, the Queensland LNP opposition have promised to remove the "detention as a last resort" provision if elected this year, whilst Victoria's opposition has slammed the state's two-step time frame towards raising the age, which is scheduled to begin next year.

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