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Better approaches to supporting young people in the Northern Territory

In May, the Northern Territory Government introduced a number of legislative changes to the youth justice system that will see more children separated from family and community, and funnelled into detention. These deeply concerning measures include increasing grounds to refuse or revoke bail; reducing access to diversion; and more powers to place electronic monitoring devices on young people in contact with the justice system.

Jesuit Social Services has made clear its opposition to the changes, which spurn the recommendations of the 2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT and will not lead to improved community safety. The measures will also disproportionately impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, who make up most of the young people in custody in the NT. Thirty years since the landmark report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which called for legislation to ensure imprisonment be used only as a last resort, these punitive, costly and ineffective policies will only cause more harm.

Grassroots-led action in the NT continues to demonstrate a better way to support young people and make communities safer for all. In Palmerston, an Aboriginal-led pilot program is working to improve employment opportunities for at-risk young people, including those who have been involved in the youth justice system. Initiated by local elder Serena Dalton, the Grassroots Youth Engagement Pilot Program has partnered with a local construction business to employ young people in a supported environment, with access to mentoring and cultural support. An evaluation prepared by Jesuit Social Services found the pilot has supported significant positive change in the lives of the young people engaged in it.

Jesuit Social Services also continues to deliver the pre-sentence Youth Justice Group Conferencing program in several locations across the NT, with positive results.

Facilitated by an independent convenor, group conferencing is a process that safely engages parties affected by a crime to understand what happened and how people have been affected, identify ways to repair the harm and make a plan to improve things for the future. We have found that the vast majority of young people who participate in a group conference successfully complete their outcome plan and show improved connections to family and significant others.

Group conferencing at the pre-sentence stage in the NT has provided a much needed court referred diversion option that can help young people avoid detention. Community-based support options have also been instituted through the Back on Track program, which focuses on diverting young people away from the justice system and stands in contrast to the government’s recent regressive justice proposals. Jesuit Social Services provides restorative responses to support young people in Katherine, including linking young people with role models and cultural mentors who can support them to reach their goals.

We need to support young people who are getting into trouble by keeping them connected to family, school and community. Our 5th National Justice Symposium, to be held in Mparntwe/Alice Springs on 28 July 2021 in partnership with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), will take up the vital issue of youth justice. Centring the voices and stories of First Nations young people and communities, the Symposium will explore the ingredients for change from the grassroots to the system level, with keynotes and panel discussions, conversations with young people and with Elders, case studies of good practice, and a focus on the power of storytelling and community action.

You can find out more information, including details about our in person and live streaming registration options here: https://events.humanitix.com/njs