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Experts say MP's approach to NT youth crime is not evidence-based

Dechlan Brennan -

Experts have criticised calls from Labor MP Marion Scrymgour for the NT to show "tough love" to juvenile offenders, arguing her stance is at odds with the evidence on what works.

It comes as various media outlets and politicians have begun to openly criticise jurisdictions moving to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, which is backed by health, legal and human rights groups.

On Wednesday, Ms Scrymgour, who represents the vast federal electorate of Lingiari, said the current laws in NT - which saw the age of criminal responsibility raised to 12 last year - weren't working, and there needed to be rethink on how youth crime was managed in the territory.

"At the moment, obviously lifting the age of criminal responsibility isn't working," she told The Australian.

On Friday, the Justice Reform Initiative were critical of Ms Scrymgour's comments, with executive director Dr Mindy Sotiri telling National Indigenous Times criminal justice reforms in Australia needed to be based on evidence, not rhetoric.

"Youth justice absolutely does need a rethink - in the Northern Territory and around Australia - but this must be based on hard evidence of what actually works to prevent youth offending," Dr Sotiri said.

"We know 'tough on crime' policy settings do not lead to better outcomes for children or for community safety. Imprisonment, particularly at a young age, increases a child's risk of becoming trapped in a cycle of criminal justice involvement."

NT Attorney-General and Eastern Arrernte man, Chanston Paech, told The Australian he defended the current approach in the NT, arguing whilst "children who do the wrong thing are held accountable, regardless of their age, under appropriate therapeutic interventions," his government wouldn't be vindictive in their approach.

"We refuse to be a part of punitive, retrograde and politically expedient policies that have clearly failed," Minister Paech said. "We refuse to fail children who have been failed over and over again."

In the same article, National Children's Commissioner Anne Hollonds said it was "clear the justice system isn't the solution" to any perceived youth crime problem.

"Harsh punitive measures, or even harsher sentences, don't fix it," Commissioner Hollonds said. "Kids aren't getting up in the middle of the night thinking 'I won't steal that car because of a sentence I might get'. Their brains don't work like that."

Her comments come as various commentators have argued 'light sentencing' means children are content to commit crimes knowing they won't be "punished." However, evidence shows youth detention numbers has remained relatively stable over time, with a significant increase in unsentenced children and young people spending time in custodial facilities.

NT Children's Commissioner Shahleena Musk told National Indigenous Times sending youths to often violent and dangerous juvenile facilities only result in further "hurting children."

"It deprives children of their liberty, but more importantly, does nothing to address the root causes of crime," Commissioner Musk said.

She argued there was greater success in diversionary programs "with a strong focus on evidence-based solutions," rather than the "simplistic and unevidenced" response of simply incarcerating children.

Commissioner Musk highlighted these evidence-based responses, which include restorative justice - where the former youth lawyer recounted a client being required to come face to face with a victim of their crimes in a mediatory setting - and Indigenous-led programs for Indigenous youth offenders, which are proven to have a higher rate of diverting children away from the justice system.

"Locking children up and further harming them does nothing to reduce crime; rather, it actually increases recidivism," she said.

The Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council recently noted: "The younger children were at their first sentence, the more likely they were to re-offend generally, re-offend violently, continue offending into the adult criminal jurisdiction, and be sentenced to imprisonment in an adult court before their 22nd birthday."

Furthermore, the younger a child is at first sentencing, the higher likelihood of re-offending. 86 per cent of children who were first incarcerated aged 10-12 years re-offended, compared to 33 per cent for people aged 19–20.

Dr Sotiri highlighted this in a NT context, where the territory currently incarcerates children at a higher rate than any other jurisdiction in Australia. In 2022, the Office of the Children Commissioner (OCC) reported almost 100 per cent of the children in youth detention across the NT were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

"The number of children in detention in the NT has more than doubled since 2019-2020, and almost all of these are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children," she said.

"Investing in evidence-based programs and services run by the community sector, especially First Nations-led organisations, delivers far better outcomes than expensive incarceration which carries an enormous risk of entrenching patterns of behaviour and long-term harm for the child and the community."

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