By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
The Northern Territory government will spend an extra $18.2 million annually to overhaul its troubled juvenile justice system, focusing on prevention and diversion rather than incarceration.
“… we have to make sure we prevent crime before it occurs,” NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner remarked. “The youth justice system is broken and today is the first big step towards fixing it.”
The funding boost comes in the wake of the Don Dale Detention Centre abuse scandal, where footage emerged on national television of boys being tear-gassed, spit-hooded and shackled, sparking a royal commission.
“If you want a different result, you’ve got to do things differently, and it’s beyond time that we started”, the Chief Minister acknowledged.
Among other things, the funding boost will pay for 52 new youth diversion workers, based in Darwin, Palmerston, Katherine and Alice Springs, who will assist troubled youths to address any underlying issues, help with accommodation, education and employment and try to get them on the right track.
The government has also pledged an additional $6 million for diversionary initiatives such as boot camps and wilderness programs.
There will also be an enhanced emphasis on restorative justice conferencing, where victims are able to tell young offenders about the impact of their conduct, and develop programs aimed at preventing further offending.
Boot camps must be therapeutic, not militaristic
Jeanette Kerr, the acting deputy chief executive of Territory Families, believes there is insufficient evidence to suggest that military-style boot camp actually work.
When asked by the Royal Commission about a boot camp running near Alice Springs, Kerr stated “I can’t talk specifically about that program, because I don’t know about it in detail, but I can say that there’s very strong criminological evidence that boot camps don’t work”.
The Northern Territory Council of Social Service (NTCOSS) welcomed the extra funding for NGOs to run youth diversionary programs, adding that boot camps need to be supported by follow-up services. “I haven’t heard a lot of positive things around boot camps,” NTCOSS executive director Wendy Morton said.
The Australian Institute of Criminology has undertaken a systematic review of boot camps, finding no overall positive effect on reoffending rates. The review found that such programs are only effective if the primary emphasis is therapeutic, rather than militaristic physical punishment.
Restorative justice conferences
There are also question marks over the effectiveness of restorative justice conferences.
A 2012 BOCSAR study found that, although such conferences enhance victim satisfaction, they are currently no more effective than the NSW Children’s Court in reducing juvenile reoffending.
”The fundamental problem with restorative justice programs is that they don’t deal with the underlying problems of juvenile offending, problems such as impulsive behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse, poor parenting, poor school performance and the inability to get a job,” Dr Weatherburn remarked.
However, results improve when offenders are required to comply with tailored programs following the conferences.
Hope for the future
Despite her criticism of boot camps, Ms Moreton is optimistic about the territory’s shift towards prevention and diversion. “I think it’s a really good first step in what they’ve announced today particularly the bail support program and accommodation because that’s been a real gap that’s been identified by a whole range of organisations over time,” she said.
She was critical of the previous Country Liberal Party (CLP) government’s decision to slash $4.8 million from diversionary and preventative programs during its time in office.
It is hoped the early identification and management of troubled youths will help reduce the number who are drawn into a cycle of crime, and to divert those who have already committed offences.
In a welcome change from tough-on-crime language, Mr Gunner remarked “If you treat youth offenders as adult offenders you create adult offenders”. Such rhetoric indicated a shift towards assisting youths to address issues that lead to offending, rather than simply punishing them after the fact.