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Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention (2016)

Statement by the Lowitja Institute 28 July 2016

The Lowitja Institute welcomes the swift action by the Federal Government in announcing a Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention in response to the brutal treatment of children detained in the Northern Territory criminal justice system, aired in the ABC Four Corners program on Monday 25 July 2016.

The disturbing revelations show that immediate action must be taken and we welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement. We expect that it will result in effective and swift reform of the current youth detention system.

We support the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APO NT) call for the Royal Commission to have independence from the Northern Territory Government, as well as the appointment of Aboriginal Commissioner/s from the Northern Territory. (APO NT’s letter to the Prime Minister and media release via AMSANT)

At a more systemic level, however, the program serves to highlight the urgent need to consider alternatives to incarceration for young people, in the Northern Territory and elsewhere in Australia.

Alarming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander over-representation in Australian prisons, combined with high rates of recidivism, and an annual government expenditure reaching $3 billion, have led many to claim that incarceration—particularly of young people—is a social policy failure that needs to be redressed. Research commissioned by the Lowitja Institute in 2015 showed that, despite the myth of little sympathy for offenders among the general public—a situation that is often exploited by politicians to perpetuate punitive policies—citizens are open to the idea of alternatives to incarceration, and to the provision of better services and programs that address the social, cultural and economic determinants of crime.

Almost ten years ago in 2007, the Little Children are Sacred Report co-authored by Lowitja Institute Chair, Ms Pat Anderson AO, provided a comprehensive overview of the determinants that impact on Aboriginal individuals, families and communities in the Northern Territory.

Increasingly, the evidence points to the limitations of incarceration as a tool for effective justice, and to the strong link between contact with the criminal justice system and poor health and social outcomes for individuals and families.

As Australia’s national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research, the Lowitja Institute strongly encourages governments to consider adopting Justice Reinvestment. Endorsed by past and current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioners, Professor Tom Calma and Mr Mick Gooda, Justice Reinvestment is based on evidence that a large proportion of offenders come from a relatively small number of disadvantaged communities (Social Justice and Native Title Report 2014). Justice Reinvestment impels governments and policymakers to realise the benefits of initiatives that address the health and social determinants of incarceration, rather than continue to implement punitive policies that result in more incarceration, particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians ("Good kid, mad system”: the role for health in reforming justice for vulnerable communities via MJA).

Imprisonment is expensive: per year, prison beds cost some $100,000 for adults and some $200,000 in youth justice. Rates of incarceration and recidivism, let alone abuses such as illustrated by the Four Corners program demonstrate that these public monies are misdirected. The Lowitja Institute strongly recommends that governments consider Justice Reinvestment so that resources are more effectively spent on services that help young people avoid contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.

As a society, we must build the pathways to growth, wellbeing and resilience that all children deserve, not allow punishment that destroys. We are better than that.

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