Controversial new youth bail laws have passed through the Northern Territory Parliament despite strong opposition from Aboriginal legal groups and children’s rights groups.
The Youth Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 (NT) was introduced to parliament by the Gunner Government last Wednesday and was passed on Tuesday night with bipartisan support.
The changes were fast tracked despite calls for a consultation period.
The legislation removes the presumption of bail for first time offenders and automatically revokes bail if conditions are breached.
It is now also more difficult for the courts to divert children from the criminal justice system if they have previously failed to complete a diversionary program.
David Woodroffe of the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) said the laws create a zero-tolerance environment to youth offending that will put more children behind bars and make them more likely to reoffend.
According to Woodroffe, the changes are based on populist “tough on crime” sentiments rather than evidence.
“There’s an acceptance of this cost of sacrificing children for populist policies,” he said.
Woodroffe says the measure does not take into account the reasons a child can fail a diversionary program.
“If a child fails a diversion, it’s often because of a lack of support, hearing loss, brain injuries, or undiagnosed medical conditions,” he said.
“The laws create another highway into the justice system and detention.”
The measures have also been slammed by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
“All the evidence tells us the best way to prevent youth offending is to divert young people away from the justice system and into alternative programs that offer the support they need,” said National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds.
“This legislation may well have the effect of trapping young people within the justice system where they might otherwise have had an opportunity to find a better path.”
Danila Dilba Health Service chief executive Olga Havnen says the laws are a disaster for children’s rights.
“I don’t deny that there have been some really very unpleasant and unfortunate incidents of juvenile offending, particularly in Alice Springs; that behaviour is not acceptable under any circumstances,” she said.
“But to repeal the bail laws [and create a] presumption against bail is just a step too far.”
Havnen says the laws will put more children into an already overwhelmed juvenile detention system.
“Don Dale [Youth Detention Centre] is struggling at the moment with adequate staffing levels,” she said.
“Today they had six staff members off on supplies, which means that the kids then are in lockdown and in their cells for longer periods of time, because there are not sufficient staff.
“This becomes a pressure point that will lead to kids acting out and for there to be potential for conflict with security staff. This is not a good situation.”
NIT has contacted NT Attorney-General Selena Uibo for comment.
By Sarah Smit