Govt rhetoric demonises young offenders

Lucy Hughes Jones
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Govt rhetoric demonises young offenders

An inquiry has heard the demonisation of young offenders in the NT has led to abuses in detention.

"Toxic" government rhetoric demonising young offenders in the Northern Territory has led to abuses in detention, an Alice Springs lawyer has told the royal commission into juvenile justice.

Footage of boys being tear-gassed, spit-hooded and shackled while behind bars in the NT prompted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to call the inquiry.

The Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission's Russell Goldflam says denigrating language from political leaders empowered guards in youth detention to use force to punish young detainees.

"The same vitriol and hatred (was) being promulgated not just by shock jocks but by the people we have elected to run our Territory," he said.

Mr Goldflam, President of the NT Criminal Lawyers Association, criticised former NT Attorney General John Elferink, but said former Chief Minister Adam Giles is also guilty of "extremely dangerous" rants.

In September, shortly after the 2014 tear gassing incident at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre was broadcast nationally, Mr Elferink publicly said "these are strapping young lads but my goodness gracious me, we will crack down on them and we will control them".

"The way in which this inflammatory rhetoric was being pumped out into our community, in my view had this toxic corrupting effect," Mr Goldflam said.

He said it can become a self fulfilling prophecy for vulnerable kids already entangled in the criminal justice system, feeding a cycle of shame, alienation and reoffending.

"I'm sure it has a really corrosive effect on their self esteem and on their sense of identity and their sense of engagement with the community," he said.

Mr Goldflam said the Territory's youth detention system has been in crisis since at least 2014, with monthly break outs and assaults linked to overcrowding.

The court heard there was a 50 per cent increase in the Territory's youth detention population in the five years leading up to 2013.

Mr Goldflam said over-policing in the NT's remote areas after the 2007 Intervention has brought many more kids into the system for minor traffic offences.

The inquiry wrapped up for the year on Wednesday after hearing from the Aboriginal teenager who's become the face of the mistreatment of young offenders in the Territory.

Dylan Voller came out of an adult jail on Monday to give evidence, painting a disturbing picture of mental and physical torment during his time as a boy behind bars.

The 19-year-old claimed he was starved, regularly strip-searched and forced to defecate in a pillow case after being denied access to toilets.

Antoinette Carroll, Voller's youth justice advocate for seven years, also told the inquiry the inmate was "set up to fail" by the NT's broken child protection and detention system.

The comments come as the federal government considers giving the inquiry an extra four months to deliver its final report "as a matter of priority".

Attorney-General George Brandis on Wednesday received a request to extend the date from March 31 to August 1.