Aboriginal justice organisations have condemned a move by the Northern Territory Government to tighten youth bail laws, saying it will have a disproportionately negative impact on Indigenous youth.

The Territory Labor Government last week announced a “significant suite of new measures” to cut youth crime, including “tougher than ever consequences” for bail breaches.

Should a young person commit a serious breach while on bail, the Territory Government plans to immediately revoke the bail and take the young person into custody.

A joint statement from Chief Minister Michael Gunner and Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services Nicole Manison announced the measures, including:

  • Automatically revoking bail for serious breaches
  • Expanding the list of prescribed offences in the Bail Act 1982(NT)
  • Expanding electronic monitoring by police
  • Allowing a record of past bail breaches
  • Toughening the Traffic Act 1987 (NT) to breath test youth without the presence of an adult
  • Amending the Youth Justice Act 2005 (NT).

“Bail is a privilege not a right,” the statement said.

“If a young person commits a serious breach of bail — their bail will be revoked and they will be taken into remand.

“A serious breach of bail will include re-offending while on bail, breaching certain electronic monitoring conditions and curfew, failure to attend court, and failing to complete youth diversion.”

Amending offences in the Bail Act 1982 (NT) will also mean there will be no presumption of bail given to offences including unlawful entry, unlawful use of a motor vehicle, assault of a worker and assault of police, among “other serious offences”.

“Today we announce a suite of measure measures to keep you safe and hold offenders to greater account — from automatically revoking bail for youth who seriously breach, to more powers for police to use electronic monitoring,” said Chief Minister Gunner.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) say they are “shocked” by the proposed reforms, saying it is clear they will disproportionately impact Indigenous youth and “further push them into the quicksand of the criminal justice system”.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s report on youth detention populations in 2020, the NT consistently had the highest rate of youth in detention on average night each quarter over a four-year period.

In 2019, the NT Government’s Social Policy Scrutiny Committee heard that every single child in detention in the Territory was Indigenous.

NATSILS Executive Officer Dr Hannah McGlade says the NT Government needs to “build futures not prisons”.

“These policies fly in the face of the recommendations handed down by the Don Dale Royal Commission. If children are in prison, the government has failed.”

“We urge NT and all Australian governments to abandon dangerous law and policy that targets our young people … and focus on strengthening communities, provide support for alternatives and wrap-around supports,” said Dr McGlade.

The Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) also opposes the proposed measures, saying the reforms will “roll back critical Royal Commission recommendations and will have far reaching and devastating consequences”.

NAAJA Principal Legal Officer David Woodroffe said the measures were “bad law and bad policy”.

“We know knee-jerk responses to crime don’t work,” Woodroffe said.

“We need to stay the course of the Royal Commission’s recommendations and invest in evidence-based responses that address the underlying causes of offending.”

The proposed measures are at odds with the recommendations of the 2016 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

The Royal Commission found that in some cases, those granting bail did “not ensure sufficiently that young people understand the conditions of their bail and what is required of them”, leading to further breaches.

It also found that the Territory has “inadequate bail support services” for young people.

While one of the new proposed reforms includes giving police more powers to “immediately place a monitoring device on a young person”, the Royal Commission recommended that electronic monitoring should only be considered when there is “no other alternative to remanding the child or young person in detention”.

The reforms also do not align with the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, with one of the current targets aimed at reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous young people in the justice system by at least 30 per cent by 2031.

NATSILS Co-Chair and NAAJA CEO Priscilla Atkins believes there is a better way forward.

“We want our communities to be safe. Locking up kids only makes this worse and we can’t keep building more prisons,” she said.

“We need to back responses that work – continuing investment in community driven solutions that support Aboriginal children and families.”

By Hannah Cross