More than two years after the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory handed down its recommendations, little significant progress has been made.

Over 200 people from across the country joined the Law Council of Australia’s recent Indigenous incarceration webinar and heard panellists urge State and Territory Governments to listen and engage more with Aboriginal communities.

Law Council President, Pauline Wright, chaired the webinar, with panellists:

  • David Woodroffe, Principal Legal Officer of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and President of the Aboriginal Lawyers’ Association of the Northern Territory
  • Olga Havnen, advocate and CEO of Darwin’s Danila Dilba Health Service
  • Mick Gooda, a prominent advocate for the rights of First Nations Australians for the past 30 years.

Law Council President, Pauline Wright, chaired the webinar. Wright told NIT it is “hard to know why there doesn’t seem to be the political will to take meaningful action, the kind of systemic transformative changes that we need”.

“It is clear that some real change has to happen. We have seen successive Royal Commissions and all manner of reports coming down that have been effectively ignored,” she said.

“There was real hope with the Northern Territory Royal Commission that it was going to be different and there was going to be action.

“While there has been a reduction in the overall rate of incarceration for Indigenous children, they are still grossly overrepresented in detention and in the criminal justice system more broadly.”

Wright said a number of key recommendations have not been implemented.

“Children on remand are still being incarcerated. They are still being sent to Don Dale Detention Centre, which the Royal Commission said should be closed down. A lot of children detained on remand are never given a custodial sentence at all.”

Wright said authorities need to rethink the “overemphasis on arresting young people”, something which should be considered only as a last resort.

She said in addition to halting the practice of holding youth in custody on remand, options need to be put in place to divert young people from detention.

“There are key recommendations which, if followed, would lead to change. We also believe in raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10,” Wright said.

“The repeal of mandatory sentencing laws is essential … and we need First Nations-led solutions.”

The Royal Commission recommended a therapeutic-based approach to children in custody so that rehabilitation can be pursued effectively.

Wright said the Royal Commission found that the Territory’s child protection system is in crisis, and said early intervention is needed “to support families of children who may come into conflict with the justice system”.

“We know that removal of children from their families almost always leads to worse outcomes.

“There is a need to replace Don Dale with a purpose-built facility which enables a therapeutic approach to children. We need to see the development of a 10-year generational strategy, a network of family support centres, and a shift to diverting children away from the criminal justice system.”

The Law Council President said secure accommodation, changes to bail, and the engagement and involvement of Aboriginal organisations in the child protection and justice systems were all vital to reforming the system.

“With community-based solutions, the cost is much less than putting a child in custody. Even a modest investment in community-based solutions has a huge impact,” Wright said.

The panellists in the Law Council webinar all cited the need for reforming the bail system, and the need for greater support for families to help children comply with bail conditions, including the provision of safe and appropriate bail accommodation.

In an additional statement, Wright said the panel discussed cases in which children were “overloaded with charges, ensuring that they would be locked up rather than let out on bail due to a fear that they would fail to appear”.

“Overwhelmingly the panel called on governments to listen to and engage with First Nations communities and agreed that there needed to be systemic and transformative changes to the system if we are going to see any reduction in incarceration rates,” she said.

By Giovanni Torre