By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
Northern Territory police recently published the photographs and names of two boys aged 11 and 14 on their official Facebook page, advising followers that the boys are “wanted for questioning in relation to recent unlawful entries” and calling for information on their whereabouts.
The post was deleted after a public outcry against naming and shaming child suspects, and accusations that the publication breaches the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC).
Northern Territory Law
The Northern Territory is the only place in Australia where the law permits the publication of personal details of those aged under 18.
However, Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne says the practice breaches international law, namely Article 40 of the UNCROC, which states that children should have their “privacy fully respected at all stages of the proceedings”.
The Territory is also out-of-step with the United Nations ‘Beijing Rules’ for juvenile justice, which provide that:
- The juvenile’s right to privacy shall be respected at all stages in order to avoid harm being caused to her or him by undue publicity or by the process of labelling.
- In principle, no information that may lead to the identification of a juvenile offender shall be published.
Deputy Police Commissioner Kate Vanderlaan says members of her force consider whether to publish the names and images of children on a case-by-case basis. She claims such details are only be published where this is a concern for their welfare, a concern for public safety, or with parental or guardian consent.
“We acknowledge that in this case, that practice was not followed correctly,” Ms Vanderlaan admitted.
Ms Gwynne expressed the view that naming and shaming troubled children can stigmatise and lead them further down the wrong path.
“The research is clear that naming and shaming can have the opposite effect with child offenders [ie lead to more anti-social conduct rather than less], and children acting like that need to live up to these kinds of reputations”, she stated.
“In the past young people have gone on to commit crimes because they’ve received notoriety out of it and wear it as a badge of honour, and enjoy that kind of status they receive being highlighted in the media”.
Punishment versus diversion
Publicly labelling children as criminals – especially in small communities – can contribute to low self-esteem, and lead to further alienation from the community.
It can make it harder for children secure education or employment, and ultimately get back on the right track. It can make children feel worthless and hopeless, and draw them further into the criminal justice system
Research clearly demonstrates that children are more likely to reoffend if they are punished for their misconduct, rather than placed on programs which seek to address the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour.
In terms of a revolving door of incarceration, the figures suggest that 48% of juvenile males and 61% of juvenile females are re-incarcerated within 18 months of their release from detention, and a whopping 80% will experience some form of correctional supervision within 7 years of their release.
“Young people tend to make poor decisions and choices [due to] their lack of experience and maturity and guidance around them,” Ms Gwynne said. “You have other kids that will offend more than that, but the research says that naming them doesn’t actually stop them reoffending, it has no impact at all.”
Ken Davies, CEO of the Department of Territory Families, supports Ms Gwynne’s concerns and suggests that troubled children can reform when given the required opportunities and support.
“[We] will continue to work with police and families to ensure children and young people are supported when they make bad decisions,” he stated.
“The wellbeing of children, young people and their families across the NT remains at the centre of what we do, with a commitment towards prevention and early intervention; diverting young people away from the youth justice system wherever possible.”
In the wake of the NT’s child detention centre abuse scandal and ensuing Royal Commission, it is clear that naming and shaming child suspects is the wrong approach for police to take.