Don Dale to Be Torn Down, But Australia Continues to Lag Behind on Youth Justice Reform

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Child in custody

A new youth detention centre is only months away from opening in the Northern Territory, which means the State Government will finally tear down one of Australia’s toughest, most notorious youth facilities, Don Dale Detention Centre.

Abuses of children and youths within the walls of Don Dale thrust into the spotlight on 24 July 2016 when the ABC aired its expose titled Australia’s Shame, leading to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

Our website had in fact reported on abuses in Don Dale in September 2015, nine months before the ABC program.

Distressing mistreatment of youths in detention

The Royal Commission found that boys had been subjected to “repeated and distressing mistreatment”, were denied basic needs such as water, and that legal requirements, including limits on the use of force and isolation, were not followed.

Despite the co-Commissioners Margaret White and Mick Gooda referring a number of  cases to police when delivering their final report in November 2017, no charges have ever been laid against adults at the facility who allegedly breached their duty of care.

The only upside, is that it did highlight that the facility was only serving to re-traumatise children, rather than rehabilitate them, that many of them are not getting access to mental health care they so vitally need, and have been forced to survive in amongst broken, unhygienic conditions.

New ‘high tech’ facility

And now, while there’s a lot of PR-spin about how the new $32m purpose-built ‘high-tech’ facility with a ‘therapeutic focus’ will “help troubled youths turn their lives around”, the calls for much more work on prevention strategies – to stop young people from even stepping inside the gates – are coming louder than ever.

There are the usual suggestions that money would be much better spent on wrapping other services around youth, and setting up better processes for indigenous children which includes engaging and supporting Aboriginal community leadership and cultural authority more significantly which would mean that young indigenous people who commit crimes are still punished, but can be diverted from white-Australian justice system.

State and Territory governments have generally been complacent when it comes to youth justice reform.

But more than that, some jurisdictions have placed greater emphasis on punitive measures rather than addressing the underlying causes of youth crime and attempting to divert youths away from the criminal justice system.

This is despite the fact that study after study has found that investing in helping youths to turn their lives around is far more effective in reducing crime than punitive measures. The research has shown that recidivism rates are high when youths don’t get the right support, leaving them stuck within the cycle of crime, in and out of detention centres rather than diverted towards becoming gainful members of society.

The cost of prison itself is one thing – but it doesn’t  include the long term social costs – to families and communities.

Despite making several promises to shut Don Dale down, the government has kept it open  – because facilities in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek are overcrowded. A lot has been reported about ‘youth crime gangs’ taking over the streets in the past few years.

The age of criminal responsibility

And, last year, the Northern Territory was the first state in Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to 12 years. And it has become something of a ‘hot political potato’ with many of the young offenders committing crimes aged between 10-11 years, the vast majority of them indigenous youths, therefore now unable, under the law, to be held accountable for their crimes.

It’s no secret that youth crime is driven largely by a host of issues including, but not limited to, intergenerational disadvantage and alcohol abuse, childhood abuse and trauma, illiteracy and other forms of marginalisation.

So while many youth justice workers believe that this is where the government funds and focus really need to be, to make some significant headway, in order to help these young people before they turn to crime, it’s also not an easy solution.

It’s important to remember that these are not trivial crimes such as theft or vandalism, many of them include serious assaults and other forms of harm to people and property. And there is an expectation, of course, that such serious crimes be punished, in line with community expectations.

Should parents be more accountable for crimes committed by their children?

In recent times, there has been some debate around ‘vicarious responsibility’ after the landmark case in the US, whereby the parents of a teenage boy who has been sentenced to life in prison after a mass school shooting, have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in relation to the acts of their son. 

Authorities are under pressure to enact accountability wherever they can for such senseless acts, and it is unlikely that the Second Amendment (which gives citizens the right to bear arms) will ever be changed.

What about in Australia? Shold parents be held accountable for the crimes committed by their children? It’s an interesting question. And one that needs considerable thought, because if parents end up serving prison sentences, this too, has a negative impact on the ‘family’ unit – and only serves to perpetuate other problems which can occur when there is a family breakdown.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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