The Northern Territory government is promising more young people will be refused bail and remanded in the youth detention system as a result of changes announced in a tough-on-crime crackdown.
The measures outlined by Chief Minister Michael Gunner on Tuesday were unveiled ahead of a push in NT Parliament by the Country Liberal opposition this week, which has ramped up its long-standing calls to axe changes made after the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory.
Some of the government’s changes could go further than what the opposition has proposed, including new rules that would force courts to revoke bail in certain circumstances.
The changes have the backing of NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker, who said they would help young people “break the cycle” of repeat offending.
But they are drawing strong criticism from groups that had already warned against “knee-jerk” responses to a complicated problem, with Amnesty International Australia slamming the plan as a “callous, racist legislative crackdown”.
What is Labor proposing?
The government says it’s proposing changes to the Bail Act and Youth Justice Act to create “tougher than ever consequences”, particularly around the breach of bail.
The biggest change is the idea of making the revocation of bail automatic in the case of a “serious” breach.
The government says a “serious” breach includes: any reoffending while on bail, the breach of “certain electronic monitoring conditions and curfew”, a failure to attend court or a failure to complete youth diversion.
Labor also wants to water down one of the changes it made following the royal commission, by increasing the range of offences for which there is no presumption in favour of bail when a young person faces court after their arrest.
The new offences to be added include things like unlawful entry, unlawful use of a motor vehicle and assaulting police.
The royal commission’s recommendations were based on evidence about the NT’s high rates of youth remand, and the “significant” negative impact of jail time on young people and their likelihood of future offending.
The “practical consequences” of the proposed changes, according to a government media release, will be “an increase of young offenders on remand”.
To accommodate the increase, the government says $5 million will be allocated for “new youth remand infrastructure” in Darwin and Alice Springs.
Labor also says it wants to give police the power to electronically monitor young people who get bail from a court.
The plan would also mean courts are unable to refer young people to diversion programs if they have already been considered for it.
Why is this happening now?
No clear explanation has been given as to the timing of the announcement.
Last month Mr Gunner told ABC Radio Darwin that Labor had already strengthened bail laws and the focus on it by the opposition was a “distraction” from addressing the causes of crime.
But the government has been under sustained and intense pressure on the subject of property crime and anti-social behaviour, especially in Alice Springs.
The latest NT Police statistics show house break-ins in Alice Springs have increased 25 per cent in the past 12 months, but the figures do not separate youth and adult offenders.
After coverage last week on Channel Nine’s A Current Affair program, the government said it was open to changes where necessary.
On Monday, Police Minister Nicole Manison said the changes were informed by discussions with NT Police and the NT Police Association.
“This is about dealing with real issues that are out there and taking the advice from the police, from the community, about ways we can make the system better,” Ms Manison said.
“[We have taken advice about how] if we have somebody who’s going about reoffending, who has little regard for the law, who is not going to do the right thing, that we have more consequences in place to deal with those offenders.”
Ms Manison said police had advised “around up to five” additional young people may have been remanded over the past month if the changes proposed by the government were already in place.
What has been the reaction?
NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker took part in the Chief Minister’s press conference on Tuesday and said the bail changes would help young people “break the cycle of the further reoffending”.
The commissioner said police analysis of youth offending in 2020 showed around 16 per cent of total offenders were recidivist and responsible for about half of all youth offences.
“Their criminal history is growing day by day, and the offending that they’re doing is causing harm to the community,” he said.
“When they are in custody, and certainly on remand under the care of Territory Families, there’s a whole lot further interdiction that can be done and a whole lot more focus that can happen on the family unit.”
CLP leader Lia Finocchiaro said the government had been forced to act under pressure from the opposition.
“If it can’t support our legislation then, from tomorrow, Territorians will hold the Chief Minister and his Labor team directly responsible for every single man, woman or child who is assaulted, broken into, traumatised and victimised by repeat offenders who are on bail,” she said.
The group that runs victim-offender conferencing in Alice Springs, Jesuit Social Services, said the government’s proposed changes were disappointing, populist and counter-productive.
“The outcome of this posturing to appear ‘tough on crime’ will only result in vulnerable children being exposed to the youth detention system — which means they are more likely to reoffend than children who are supported in the community instead,” NT general manager John Adams said.
Amnesty International Australia spokesman Rodney Dillon said the NT government had “picked up the royal commission report and thrown it in the bin”.
“Let’s be clear: no-one wants youth crime. But cracking down on Indigenous kids — because all the kids in the NT justice system are Indigenous — who have complex needs, by throwing them in jail fixes nothing,” he said.
“What it does is condemn young kids to the quicksand of the youth justice system, and it entrenches recidivism, which is what all the politicians say they want to address.”