NT’s youth justice practices risk breaching human rights

The Northern Territory’s youth justice practices risk breaching international human rights law by failing to prioritise the best interests of young people.  

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said she was alarmed by the direction of youth justice policy in the Northern Territory and recent comments from Corrections Commissioner that troublesome young people ‘will only be given a bible and colouring-in book’, in response to two 16 year old boys escaping from detention.  

“The recent escape is a serious incident. But making conditions in detention worse is certainly not the answer. Evidence shows that the best way of stopping offending and keeping the community safe is to focus on rehabilitation and education. The Northern Territory should be embracing a smarter approach,” said Ms Barson.

Late last year the two boys, along with all Darwin based youth detainees, were transferred to the old adult prison. The adults had been transferred from this facility after the NT Corrections Commissioner deemed the prison was “only fit for a bulldozer”.

The Northern Territory has the highest youth imprisonment rate in the country. Over 95 percent of young people in prison are Indigenous.

“Young people are different to adults. They are more vulnerable, less psychologically developed and have great prospects for rehabilitation. Rather than touting misguided and heavy handed responses, the Northern Territory should be targeting resources at reducing youth over-imprisonment by addressing the reasons why young people get into trouble in the first place,” said Ms Barson.

Earlier this year, the UN’s expert on torture tabled a report outlining current international benchmarks when it comes to detaining young people. It says that detention should be limited to exceptional cases; alternatives to detention should be favoured; punitive practices like solitary confinement should not be used; and young people should only be detained if it is in their best interests.

Julian Cleary, Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International, said that reports about the conditions in Darwin’s youth justice facility are extremely concerning.

“Young people in detention should be held in age-appropriate facilities, which offer non-prison like environments and which are run by specialised staff trained in dealing with vulnerable young people. Housing young people in a maximum-security, adult prison and exposing them to punitive conditions is the opposite of best practice,” said Mr Cleary.

Amnesty International recently released a report calling on all governments to address the crisis in Aboriginal youth over-imprisonment. The Report raised concerns about the conditions of youth detention in Darwin and Alice Springs.

“When it comes to young people caught up in the criminal justice system, the focus should always be on early intervention, diversion and rehabilitation. If detention is necessary as a last resort, then the prison should be designed to enhance education and reintegration opportunities. The Northern Territory seems to be going in the opposite direction,” said Mr Cleary.


For further information, please contact:
Ruth Barson, Human Rights Law Centre: 0417 773 037
Julian Cleary, Amnesty International: 0432 516 512