Traditional Owners on Groote Eylandt are establishing a local justice group to develop an alternative to incarceration.

The 14 clans represented by Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC) are working towards taking full control of local decision-making.

The holistic strategy sees the management of housing, township land and health services and the building of a boarding school on Bickerton Island.

Senior Traditional Owner and ALC Chair Tony Wurramarrba said local decision-making is just the start of the journey to full, formally recognised and legally binding self-governance.

“These are not bad kids, they are kids who need our support and guidance,” he said.

“We want our young people to stay on Country for rehabilitation, not to be sent to the mainland for prison.”

The strategy includes plans for bush camps for offenders in the isolated far north of the main island.

The camp will be overseen by the Justice Advisory Group, which includes locals who have been to prison and have made a change to their lifestyle.

ALC CEO Mark Hewitt said currently, those who are sent to Darwin have an overall negative experience.

“It’s institutionalising a cycle of recidivism,” he said.

“It was agreed that the Department of Corrections would look at the possibility of building our facility on Groote Eylandt and have an alternative sentencing process.

“It was important that the community justice group was there to guide that process.”

Hewitt said many local role models have been through the system themselves.

“A lot of the leaders within the community justice group are strong cultural leaders,” he said.

“They will bring something to an offender that those [who] work in the system simply couldn’t do.

“They understand the complexities of the clans, they know everyone on the island, they know the context of the community, why someone might offend.”

Hewitt said the proposed alternative is a much more culturally safe and sustainable approach to the justice system.

“The role models an offender will experience in incarceration are not like the role models they would experience on Groote,” he said.

The community justice group will also oversee the development of the local boarding school.

Students will board with house parents Monday to Friday—a model used with great success at the college on the Tiwi Islands—and go home at weekends if they wish.

Hewitt added that the school attendance rate on Groote Eylandt is low.

“The kids aren’t attending, a lot of the same troubles in the community are reflected in the schools,” he said.

“In building our own residential college in the bush, we plan on continuing the success of previous programs that show the kids do well outside of community politics.

“We’re establishing a bilingual curriculum for the facility. Having the right people talk to the young people that are struggling in their own language, it’s much better.”

The land council is applying to the Aboriginals Benefit Account for funding and hopes to have the school built within two years.

By Darby Ingram