Youth justice advocates are “devastated but not surprised” that the number of children in custody in the Northern Territory has risen since the implementation of harsh youth bail reforms.

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency’s (NAAJA) Principal Legal Officer David Woodroffe described the reforms as “ill thought-out”.

“These ill thought-out laws are already leading to a dramatic increase in the number of Aboriginal children going into police custody, being subject to electronic monitoring and ending up locked in youth detention,” he said.

“We hold serious concerns about Aboriginal children being separated from their families and communities and overcrowding in detention centres with increased numbers of children from Central Australia being transferred to the notorious Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin.”

Number of children in detention have been rising in the Northern Territory steadily over the last 12 months, returning to pre-pandemic levels.

In the week the laws passed in mid-May, an average of 34.6 children were held in detention during the week.

In the week immediately following, data from the Territory Families, Housing and Communities Department showed that numbers rose to an average of 38.9 children in detention across the week.

The week after, the average was 42.3.

In May 2019, numbers didn’t rise above 32 incarcerated children across the month.

The number of children in detention spiked in May, around the time the bail reforms were enacted. Graph via the Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities.

NT Minister for Territory Families and Urban Housing Kate Worden acknowledged the current daily average since the laws passed has been marginally higher than for the same period before the laws passed but disputed that the rise in numbers of detained children could be attributed to the bail reforms.

“The Territory Government is transparent about the number of young people in detention, with the daily census rates published online. The current daily average since the laws passed has been marginally higher than for the same period before the laws passed,” a spokesperson for the Minister said.

“It is not possible to directly attribute changing averages of young people in detention solely to the Youth Justice Amendment Act, as there is regular movement in the numbers of young people in detention throughout the year.

“Growth in the numbers in detention were observed preceding the legislative amendments taking effect. For example, the daily average in mid-June is less than the daily average in mid-April.”

NAAJA also raised concerns at the Territory Government’s announcement of a planned $2.5 million expansion of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, which was recommended for closure by the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory.

Woodroffe said the announcement is a signal the Government is planning for a larger increase in youth incarceration.

“The fact that the Government is establishing $2.5 million to increase the size of Don Dale and opening new wings for increased capacity of up to 120 children [is concerning].”

A spokesperson for Minister Worden said the NT Government is investing $5 million into additional youth justice remand infrastructure, half of which would be used to refurbish non-utilised blocks at Don Dale.

“Refurbishment works include a ‘fix and make safe program’ identical to previous refurbishment works within Northern Territory youth detention centres delivered as part of youth justice reforms and aligned with recommendations from the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory,” the spokesperson said.

“The remaining $2.5 million will be used to improve infrastructure within existing supported bail accommodation facilities in Darwin and Alice Springs to better provide for young people being supported to achieve their bail conditions.”

By Sarah Smit