NT juvenile justice system rotten from the top down

The tragedy of this week's Four Corners program is that the damage done to young people in Northern Territory detention centres was largely already on the record. What was missing was the political will to change anything, other than to change things for the worse by legislating to legalise shackling and mechanical restraints.

As in the US where the legal system is flawed and it's almost impossible to prosecute an officer if you're poor and black, it's video – provided here by whistleblowers – that's disruptive and making the difference.

It shows guards at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre laughing and swearing at a boy at breaking point, stuck in a dark, sweltering and filthy isolation cell with no fresh water for 15 days straight. Other footage shows a different young person handcuffed, hooded and shackled to a mechanical chair.

The Prime Minister wants to know what lessons can be learnt. The NT Children's Commissioner reported on the facility's notorious behaviour management unit a year ago. Her recommendations fell on deaf ears. Now Chief Minister Adam Giles wants to "restore faith in our custodial institutions". It's he, his CLP team and their predecessors who must be in the dock.

What is the point of funding children's commissioners if governments pay no attention to what they find? What too is the point of being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child if we behave as if we are not? The Australasian Juvenile Justice Administrators recommends limits on disciplinary measures in all facilities; limits that protect the dignity of children and offer them the chance to complain. What's the point of them if they are not observed?

Usually it's children Australia locks up abroad that grabs sorry headlines. This really hits home, but as on Manus Island and Nauru, there's a shameful lack of accountability and transparency.

Giles, facing an election next month, admits a cover-up culture exists in his corrections department. But in a lame defence of what took place on his watch, he says he would like the jointly convened royal commission to "identify appropriate measures for restraint" in juvenile jails.

The entire NT youth justice system was reviewed five years ago. Several publicly available reports already describe what's appropriate and what works, with comparisons made across jurisdictions (showing the value of a federation in which, if willing, states and territories can learn from each other) including a recent Australian House of Representatives report into the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in the justice system.

South Australian research from 2009 finds that physical restraints don't wind back aggressive behaviour, it makes it worse. A report published just three months ago by Australian Children's Commissioners and Guardians entitled Human rights standards in youth detention facilities in Australia: the use of restraint, disciplinary regimes and other specified practices finds that mechanical restraints retraumatise already powerless people.

If a child is threatened with and experienced acts of violence, it only generates fear and anger. Possibilities for positive learning and reform shut down as children feel diminished. You can forget about rehabilitation in those conditions.

Let's remind ourselves of who we're talking about. Children are not merely small adults. They are developing and vulnerable. The things that can lead them into the justice system are largely the same as those that can lead them into state care – dysfunction at home, alcohol and drugs, violence, disadvantage and poverty. Many have never been treated with respect and are deserving of a youth justice system that does not perpetuate their life experiences.

NT corrections minister John Elferink, now sacked from that role but still employed, didn't see that. He told the ABC: "We get these kids in these environments and they come to us fundamentally pre-broken by choice." No, children have their own agency, but they don't choose to be broken. When they are in trouble with the law it's typically adults who've already failed them and broken them.

The Commissioners and Guardians report finds the NT is unique for all the wrong reasons, having no legislation or policy about consulting medical staff over the use of force and restraint, nor any legislation or policy regarding the training of offices in de-escalation techniques. It has no policy framework covering the use of searches, seclusion and lockdowns.

While Australia's youth justice facilities mostly offer good care and support, other jurisdictions also have gaps. Western Australia should be part of the royal commission. Serious incidents there have in recent years prompted some reform including the appointment of an independent Youth Justice Board but real change relies on sustained efforts to monitor outcomes.

The Commissioners and Guardians report also finds that committed, well-trained and adequate numbers of staff are the foundation for any functioning and effective custodial institution. Detention staff should be representative. In the NT and elsewhere they are not demographically representative. They are less likely to relate to detainees. Examining racist attitudes must be in the inquiry's viewfinder and the role of a political culture generated from the very top.

Each year Australia spends more than $438 million dollars on youth justice detention. If this was really spent on "correction" it would leave vulnerable people – with so much of their lives before them – better able to cope in the world outside than when they came in.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 29, 2016

Popular posts from this blog

Finding the sacred in a time of coronavirus

Australia's bushfire emergency

The earth is breathing easier. Can it beyond COVID-19?