• Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory ((AAP))Source: (AAP)
Legal, health and community organisations prepare for a devastating rise in the high rate of Aboriginal children behind bars as the Northern Territory's "tougher than ever" approach to crime passes parliament last night.
Shahni Wellington

12 May 2021 - 6:57 PM  UPDATED 12 May 2021 - 6:57 PM

A coalition of Aboriginal organisations have condemned changes to the Bail Act that was rushed through on urgency in the Northern Territory parliament.

Only one member, Independent for Arnhem Land and Yolŋu man, Yingiya (Mark) Guyula, voted against the laws on Tuesday night.

The changes were touted by the Michael Gunner Labor government as having the “toughest ever” consequences for young people, and have been widely criticised as going against the recommendations made by the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

Eastern Arrernte woman and Chief Executive Officer of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, Priscilla Atkins, told NITV News the passing of the reforms is “extremely disappointing.”

“It's not going to solve the community issues, it's not going to make your community safer, what we need to do is actually change the behaviour of these youth," she said.

"But by locking them up and making significant changes to these bail laws, we're just going to increase the numbers going to the youth detention center."

The bail laws will remove the presumption of bail for first-time offenders, increase use of electronic monitoring devices, allow breath testing on a minor without an adult present, and introduce mandatory detention for any breaches of bail conditions.

A last-minute amendment to the Bill will permit an allowance for bail to be re-instated if ‘exceptional circumstances’ can be proven.

Ms Atkins says the changes will significantly increase NAAJA’s workload, as well as the demands on youth detention services.

“It's under-resourced, there's a lack of training and all (the changes) are going to do is just put more pressure there,” she said referring to the youth detention centre.

“Honestly, it looks like we're actually going back to pre-Royal Commission days,” Ms Atkins said.

A silent demonstration by Aboriginal protestors in the NT Parliament house gallery reportedly led to four people being removed and charged with two offences, as well as a 12 month ban from the grounds.

“Political solution to a political problem”

The reforms passed with bi-partisan support as the policy approach seemingly mirrored the Northern Territory Opposition's 'tough on crime' rhetoric. 

It has created division in the party, with the NT's own Indigenous Labor Network condemning the proposed legislation and staging a protest last week.

Northern Territory Labor Senator, Malarndirri McCarthy, also expressed her disappointment and told NITV’s The Point that she did not believe the reforms would reduce the high rates of incarceration or recidivism.

“I think we have to call it for what it is - this is a political solution to a political problem.

“What I would like to see is a genuine, sincere solution to what is a troubling problem of social affairs across not only the Northern Territory, but our young families in First Nations families across the country.

“There does need to be a sincere focus on all of those groups who support and try and work diligently… Let's focus on the strength of that and not on the politics of working out who's tougher on crime,” Senator McCarthy said.

Northern Territory data shows on any given day last month, Aboriginal children made up more than 90% of young people in detention.

In an address to federal parliament last night, Gunnai-Kurnai and Gunditjmara woman and Greens Senator, Lidia Thorpe, was more scathing in her response to the laws.

“This is a direct contradiction of the Northern Territory Royal Commission recommendations, in fact - this is really what is the 21st century sophistication of genocide in this country," Senator Thorpe said.

“That's what it is - it's todays genocide, couldn't wipe us out so lock us up!"

“The Labor Territory government’s oppressive and I would say racist, knee-jerk actions will see more of our kids and babies sucked into the colonial criminal system,” Senator Thorpe said. 

Punitive approach not the way

Health, community and legal groups have had their calls collectively ignored as the changes are set to become law by the end of the week. 

An open letter to the NT government to stop the laws was signed by organisations including the Australian Medical Association, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Aboriginal Corporation, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

All fourteen of Australia and New Zealand's children's commissioners and guardians united in opposing the "regressive" youth justice reforms.

While being rushed through parliament on urgency, local and national Aboriginal health organisations made clear there was no opportunity for consultation.

Chief Executive Officer Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory, John Paterson, said the 'crackdown approach' will only further disadvantage for our communities.

"There is a mountain of evidence from health services that can demonstrate and prove that the majority of these kids that are coming into contact with the law do have mental health issues, trauma stress issues,"

"So the top-down punitive corrections approach is not the way to deal with it," Mr Paterson said. 

"We need to ensure with our service providers that we provide the wraparound programs and support that youths are desperately needing and wanting."

Calls for community-control in Alice Springs over proposed youth crackdown
Mparntwe locals and justice advocates say an investment in community-led initiatives is crucial in addressing an increase of youth crime in the town, rather than stronger "punitive" laws proposed by the NT government.