This week marks the two year anniversary since the horrific images of child abuse in Don Dale youth prison were beamed across the nation, leading to the Northern Territory Royal Commission.
While the Northern Territory Government accepted, in principle, all 226 Royal Commission recommendations and promised to institute "the most comprehensive overhaul of youth justice and child protection in NT history," Shahleena Musk, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that critical changes to stop children being harmed weren’t happening fast enough.
“While the Chief Minister’s words and promises were heartening at the time, not enough has changed on the ground. Conditions in Don Dale remain dire. Children under 14 are still being locked up. Imprisonment rates are soaring. The Government has a once in a generation opportunity to create a supportive and humane youth justice system, but it must act now,” said Ms Musk.
Last month it was revealed that 100% of children behind bars in the Northern Territory are Indigenous. Between 70-80% of these children are on remand, either awaiting trial or yet to be sentenced. On average 30 children under the age of 14 are sent to dangerous youth prisons each year.
Ms Musk said that although the Gunner Government promised to raise the age of criminal responsibility, it is yet to step up and follow through.
“This is a simple reform that would make the world of difference. For every day that the Government delays raising the age of criminal responsibility, a child who should be at home or at school, can be forced into a youth prison. Ten year olds belong in classrooms and playgrounds, not prisons," said Ms Musk.
The Royal Commission recommendations also called for increased investment in community based alternatives to detention, including greater access to diversion and rehabilitation programs, particularly Aboriginal led solutions. The Royal Commission found that current youth detention centres were not fit for accommodating children, were outdated, harsh and jeopardised the health and wellbeing of children. It further went on to find that many children were leaving detention worse off than when they went in.
Earlier this year the Government promised to close Don Dale and within three months unveil plans for a new, child appropriate facility, however there are still no plans on the table.
Ms Musk said that recent critical incidents in Don Dale, chronic under-staffing issues, the use of lock-downs and ongoing over-crowding demonstrate that Government delay in implementing the Royal Commission recommendations pose a serious risk to the safety of children.
“While there have been some positive legislative changes, like a prohibition on strip searching and solitary confinement, the Government must live up to its promises and finish the job of comprehensively fixing the youth justice system. The Government must ensure children are given every opportunity to be diverted away from the courts and prison, while those who are in the justice system should be given every chance to learn, grow and thrive,” said Ms Musk.
For interviews or further information please call:
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519