NT government’s ‘tougher than ever’ approach sets up a Don Dale re-run

Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.

First Nations and other national organisations have strongly criticised the Northern Territory Labor government’s proposals to get “tough” on young people who re-offend, saying it would drive more Aboriginal children into police and prison cells.

Labor Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced on March 23 he would bring in “tougher than ever” consequences for young people who re-offend or breach bail conditions.

Cheryl Axleby, Co-chair of , a national First Nations organisation, said the measures “would bring the Northern Territory back to the dark old days before the Royal Commission when being subjected to the most horrendous abuse”. 

The 2017 in the Northern Territory, sparked by an which showed young people being mistreated in the , found “shocking and systematic failures” in the youth prison system.

The NT already jails young people at a rate three times higher than the rest of the country. Historically, 95% have been Indigenous.

Axleby said the government should be looking at “community-driven solutions that all the evidence says we need” and accused it of ignoring the recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Gunner’s proposals have also been criticised by the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Jesuit Social Services, Australian Lawyers Alliance and the .

However, the NT Chamber of Commerce and the have welcomed them.

“The evidence is very clear,” Axleby said, “the younger a child comes into contact with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to become trapped in the criminal justice cycle and go on to offend in the future.

“The NT government might think these law changes will be popular in the short term, but they are doomed to fail. We know because previous NT governments have tried them before and they did nothing to keep kids or the community safe.

“Building new remand centres to lock up Aboriginal children who have not even been found guilty of doing anything wrong is the last thing we need.

“There are 43 times the number of Aboriginal children locked up behind bars in the NT than non-Indigenous children. Now the NT government is building new prisons to fill with more of our children.

“The Royal Commission [into the Protection and Detention of Children] was very clear that there are only a small number of circumstances in which a child should be denied bail, and they should only ever be put in detention as a last resort.”

Axleby said that the proposal to allow police to slap a tracking device on a child before they’ve even gone to court, or been found guilty of a crime, is “wrong” and “does nothing to address the drivers of crime”.

“These reforms are punitive, they’re dangerous and they’re doomed to fail — and it’s our kids who will be hurt the most.”