Julie Edwards with international speakers Candice C. Jones and Clinton Lacey in their session at the National Justice Symposium

In July 2021, Jesuit Social Services partnered with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) to host the 5th National Justice Symposium in Mparntwe/Alice Springs and online. Our biennial National Justice Symposium brings together key stakeholders and experts to explore issues and themes relating to criminal justice systems. This year, nearly 250 people came together for the day both in-person and online.

The date of this year’s Symposium coincided with the fifth anniversary of the announcement of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. The Royal Commission exposed the shameful treatment of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory’s detention system, and provided a blueprint for reform. Four years since accepting the Commission’s recommendations, the Northern Territory Government has backed away from key reforms – this has seen an immediate rise in the number of Aboriginal children detained.

Against this backdrop, the overarching theme of the 2021 Symposium was ‘Youth at the Centre’. Our aim was to bring together young people with lived experience of the justice system, Aboriginal Elders, local and international experts, sector representatives, advocates, lawyers and academics to explore what is working and what needs to change in order to end the over-incarceration of First Nations children.

We started the day hearing from young people across the Northern Territory and grounding ourselves in their stories, their hopes and dreams, the challenges they face, and their ideas for change. Following this, Elders from the Strong Grandmothers Group from the Central Desert Region and Serena Dalton, Founder of Grassroots Youth Engagement in Palmerston shared what they know works in caring for their kids – namely maintaining their connections with culture, community, family, Elders, language and Country.

We then moved into a discussion of the fragility of reform, hearing from international experts, Clinton Lacey and Candice Jones, as well as our Australian panellists, Cheryl Axleby (Change the Record) and Phil Boulten SC.

Successes and challenges shared by Clinton and Candice in pursuing a reduction in the number of youth incarcerated in the US provided an important opportunity for reflection on the reform journey in Australia.

We heard how it is possible to shift the culture in youth justice systems so that the focus is on the best outcomes for children and young people at every stage of their engagement with the justice system. Clinton spoke boldly of a system driven by love for the young people in their care and he claimed that a government’s budget is a moral document reflecting who and what we value.

Next, we heard from a range of practitioners, including Muriel Bamblett (Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency), Craig Frean and Genevieve Higgins (Jesuit Social Services), David Woodroffe and Anna Gill (NAAJA), Judge Tony Fitzgerald (Aotearoa/New Zealand) about delivering effective interventions for young people at all points of the justice system. This illustrated how good work can be done even within systems that are flawed.

Our last session of the day focused on the power of community, importance of solidarity, raising voices, and shifting narratives. We heard from Larrakia women Mililma May and Sharna Alley, co-founders of Uprising of the People, a Darwin-based grassroots organisation. Mililma and Sharna concluded by echoing the Strong Grandmothers’ message from earlier in the day – children belong on Country, not in detention.

Visit www.njs21.jss.org.au to access content from the 5th National Justice Symposium, including session recordings, speaker bios and more.