NT Royal Commission: Fixing our broken youth justice systems

NT Royal Commission: Fixing our broken youth justice systems

Today governments across Australia were handed a comprehensive roadmap to fix our broken youth justice systems and stop the abuse of children in youth jails. 

After a year of hearing evidence, the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory delivered its historic report.

Shahleena Musk, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, who previously worked as a youth justice lawyer in Western Australia and the Northern Territory and represented many children in Don Dale, welcomed the Royal Commission’s recommendations and said now is the time for decisive action.

“The Northern Territory Government must commit to implementing each and every one of these recommendations and the Federal Government needs to back them with funding. The children who suffered in Don Dale and all Australian children need a guarantee that our governments will do everything they possibly can to stop this happening again,” said Ms Musk.

The Royal Commission made a range of recommendations to keep children safe and reshape youth justice in the Northern Territory. The full report can be downloaded here

Ms Musk said there are five key recommendations that will transform youth justice systems, which should be adopted by all states and territories:

1. Raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 12 years in keeping with international law

“It’s unacceptable that primary school-aged children are getting stuck in the quicksand of the criminal justice system. Currently in all Australian jurisdictions 10-year-olds can be charged, hauled before the courts and locked up. All states and territories should raise the age of criminal liability to at least 12 years,” said Ms Musk

2. Close the Don Dale 'super max' prison and invest in small, home-like facilities close to community

“Prisons don’t work — they fail our children and they fail our communities. All children should have the opportunity to grow up safe. Evidence shows that secure facilities which reflect normal life as much as possible are more effective. We’re talking about small, home-like facilities located close to the communities where kids come from,” said Ms Musk.

3. Ban solitary confinement beyond 24 hours in all cases

“Solitary confinement is cruel and harmful. Rather than denying children access to family, peers, teachers and doctors, we need to support and help them get their lives back on track,” said Ms Musk.

4. Cut the number of children caught up in the criminal justice system

“It’s time to turn our backs on punitive approaches like mandatory sentencing and unfair bail laws that trap children in the bottomless pit of the criminal justice system. Instead, children should be diverted into community support programs that help them succeed in life," said Ms Musk.

5. Strengthen independent oversight of all places of detention 

“When children are locked away, they’re vulnerable to abuse. Putting in place accessible and independent oversight mechanisms is a proven way of preventing abuse happening in the first place. We’ve known all along that harsh law and order policies only demonise children and fail to make our communities safer. This report must act as a warning for all governments to avoid going down the dark path of Don Dale,” said Ms Musk.

The Royal Commission was announced after the ABC’s Four Corners program aired a shocking exposé depicting horrific images of the abuse of children in Northern Territory detention centres, including being hooded, tear gassed, stripped naked, threatened with dogs and held in solitary confinement. 

The Human Rights Law Centre and other organisations publicly warned the Northern Territory Government that what was happening inside Don Dale was harmful, dangerous and in breach of human rights law. We welcome the Royal Commission’s recommendations and call on the Government to take swift action.

For media inquiries and interviews:

Alycia Gawthorne, Communications Officer, 0425 016 380

The Human Rights Law Centre made four submissions to the Royal Commission, available here: