The “tough on crime” approach failed NT youth

By Shahleena Musk
Rusty Stewart

“Tough on crime” was a stance that coloured many policies of the former Country Liberal Government in the Northern Territory. It was sold as the silver bullet to drive down youth crime rates and make communities safer. It was built up to be the solution to community fears of a so-called epidemic in youth crime that was fuelled by a willing media.

Youth crime rates were exaggerated and young people were demonised and dehumanised. Described as “worst of the worst” or “villains”. It was a strategy that lacked an evidence base – a cynical tool to win votes. The fact is treating children badly through tougher measures only serves to harden kids, tear families apart and does little to make our communities safer.

Giving evidence to the NT Royal Commission into Youth Detention, the former Attorney-General and Minister for Corrections, John Elferink, confirmed that he knew little about the young people in his detention centres. He had no understanding of their ages, personal backgrounds, mental health issues or histories of trauma or neglect. He had limited knowledge of evidenced based programs, services or interventions that worked.

Instead, based on his own beliefs about “tough love” and what might work, he brought in boot camps, enlisted the help of US Marines and expanded the range of restraints for use on children. Following a series of incidents within the centres and an increase in escapes he nonetheless ploughed on, asserting that “we are going to be a tougher regime, it’s going to be a firmer regime.”

Treating children badly through tougher measures only serves to harden kids, tear families apart and does little to make our communities safer.

Over four years, I represented many children in NT youth detention and I visited the centres regularly. I received many complaints about the conditions, including mistreatment by staff, excessive use of lockdowns, isolation in cells, and routine use of handcuffs and restraints. Time and time again, I was struck by how the NT’s youth detention facilities fail our children. And fail to make communities safer. As the Royal Commission has recently indicated, these facilities result in many children leaving more damaged than when they go in.

It is no coincidence that around Elferink’s time in government, more incidents took place in youth detention centres, including in the old adult Darwin Berrimah Prison which was re-badged as the Don Dale youth detention centre. It is no coincidence that throughout this period serious allegations of mistreatment and abuse of children were consistently reported.

Elferink, together with Chief Minister Adam Giles, put in place more and more punitive measures. In the lead up to the 2016 election he cooked up a wish list of initiatives which were in line with the sort of harsh policies he hoped would win votes. The list of 31 items included extreme measures such as the creation of an enhanced juvenile squad to target families of known children caught up in the system and giving police ‘shakedown powers’ that would increase police powers to “arbitrarily” search homes of suspected offenders. Little thought went into what actually works.

What we do know is the most effective way to cut crime is to tackle its causes.

Most, if not all, of the children I have represented are on the outskirts of society and lack essential support. They are in a particularly vulnerable state by the time they enter the youth justice system.

The most effective way to cut crime is to tackle its causes.

Policies and resources should be directed to tackling the issues that lead young people to commit crime in the first place – childhood neglect and abuse, involvement in child protection, disengagement from school, mental health problems and substance abuse. Treatment approaches that focus on behaviour change and personal development are more effective at reducing re-offending than those that focus on punishment, fear and surveillance. Investing in a multitude of community based responses that address these issues will prevent crime.

As the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory concludes, we’d do well to remember that our community would be better served by understanding the issues that are affecting children in the Northern Territory rather than “tough love” rhetoric. The fact is treating children badly will never make anyone safer.