Last week the Northern Territory (NT) government proposed legislative changes to youth justice, including tightening access to bail and diversion, particularly for re-offenders.
We expect the legislation could go through as early as today. But this tough-on-crime approach runs contrary to what we know works to reduce youth offending and keep children healthy.
Nine national and local health organisations have written an open letter to NT government ministers warning the reforms “pose a significant threat to the health and wellbeing of an already vulnerable cohort of young people”.
Evidence-based solutions recognise youth crime is not solely a justice issue: it’s also health and disability issue. If we want to reduce youth offending, there are better alternatives to this punitive approach.
The proposed changes are regressive
If passed, the legislation would reverse changes implemented following the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory, particularly around bail.
The presumption of bail will be removed for an expanded list of offences, including unlawful entry and assault of a worker (such as a support worker). There will be automatic revocation of bail for breaches, such as breaking curfew and re-offending. Police will also be able to apply electronic monitoring to children alleged to have committed a crime.
This means, for example, a child running late for curfew, or who forgot to charge an electronic monitoring device, could automatically lose bail.
Diversion, which uses community programs instead of traditional criminal justice mechanisms, will be available to a young person only once (previously, this could be used twice).
Importantly, these changes will increase the number of youth in detention in the NT. The average rate of young people aged 10-17 in detention in the NT is 7.9 per 10,000 — already more than three times the national average.
Well over 90% of young people in detention in the NT are Indigenous Australians.
Punishment and deterrence are not effective
Evidence tells us solely punitive responses in youth justice are largely ineffective in preventing repeat offending. Military-style boot camps and “scared straight” programs (where, for example, youth are taken to prisons to see the possible consequences of their behaviour) don’t work.
Even short periods of detention, with the associated separation from culture and community, can affect a child’s psychological and physical well-being and compromise cognitive development.
Compounding the problem, detention with other young people can exacerbate bad behaviour.
Figures provided to us by the NT government show 77% of young people released from detention return within 12 months, but 64% of those who complete a diversion program do not reoffend in the same timeframe.
Trauma and neurodevelopmental disability are common
Adolescence is a period of significant development, with changes in brain structure and function. A growing body of evidence shows many young people in the justice system have experienced significant interruptions to healthy brain development.
Childhood abuse or neglect, exposure to domestic violence, or parental mental illness, can induce “toxic stress”. This affects the development of skills such as emotional regulation, reward-seeking, executive function (including flexible thinking and self-control) and threat perception.
Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is brain damage caused by exposure to alcohol before birth. A study from the Banksia Hill Detention Centre in Western Australia found 36% of 99 young people evaluated had FASD.
Some 89% of all participants had severe impairment in at least one area, such as academic achievement, attention, or language. As care providers at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, we see this frequently in the young people we meet.
As a result of such trauma and disability, young people often have a restricted range of responses to emotional and stressful situations. They’re more likely to resort to aggression, violence, and impulsive behaviour.
So what works?
We need effective interventions that recognise the developmental stage of adolescence and respond to individual needs.
First, the system needs to promote resolution outside a formal criminal justice process. One method is Family Group Conferences, which have been successful in New Zealand.
The conferences bring together the offender, their family, the victim, police and others to discuss and make recommendations for the young person. They’re more likely to be culturally appropriate and empower families and communities, and can also benefit the victim. The Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended expanding the use of this program in Australia.
Second, we need an evidence-based, therapeutic approach to rehabilitation that recognises an individual offender’s risk factors and disability. This may mean interventions at home and school, supporting peer relationships or reducing substance use. These approaches are targeted at the child’s developmental level and address how they respond to challenges.
One such program is the Yiriman Project, which operates in the Kimberley. It uses on-country trips focused on cultural pride, safety, and regeneration for Indigenous young people.
In Spain, the Diagrama Foundation model, which provides a range of rehabilitative programs in detention, has seen repeat offending fall as low as 14%.
Punitive approaches do not address the issues driving bad behaviour. We need to see prompt assessment of all young offenders for FASD and other disabilities, ideally as soon as they enter the youth justice system. We also need to expand best-practice diversion programs. These were key findings from a recent senate inquiry into FASD and will allow responses to improve skills many of us take for granted, such as emotional regulation, developing strong relationships, and an ability to organise daily tasks.
The NT government’s regressive policies will not reduce youth crime. And instead of addressing the poor health of most youth offenders, they will expose some of the most vulnerable and marginalised young people in our society to further trauma and disadvantage.