Proposed NT youth bail law changes slammed

·3-min read

An Aboriginal legal service has joined social workers, humanitarians and lawyers in denouncing the Northern Territory government's proposed changes to youth bail laws.

Child offenders who breach their bail conditions would be automatically placed on remand under a proposed crackdown on crime that also bolsters police powers.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency has condemned the reform, saying it would roll back critical recommendations from the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

"This is bad law and bad policy. We know knee-jerk responses to crime don't work," principal lawyer David Woodroffe said on Wednesday.

"We need to stay the course and invest in evidence-based responses that address the underlying causes of offending."

Under the planned changes, announced by Chief Minister Michael Gunner on Tuesday, children accused of re-offending while on bail, breaching electronic monitoring conditions or curfew, failing to attend court or complete diversion programs will have their bail revoked.

The list of crimes where bail may not be granted will also be expanded to include unlawful entry, unlawful use of a motor vehicle, assault of a worker or police officer.

Police will also be given more powers to immediately place electronic monitoring on alleged offenders and breath test children without an adult guardian present.

NAAJA's criticism was echoed by a slew of humanitarian and legal groups, including the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

"We know people are looking for answers and we all want to live in safe communities, but the proposed measures are not the solution," Greg Barns SC said.

"Locking up more young people will not help. It just increases the likelihood of even more serious offending as the young people become adults."

Earlier, Amnesty International Australia described the proposed changes as a "callous, racist legislative crackdown", saying throwing children with complex needs in jail fixes nothing.

"What it does is condemn young kids to the quicksand of the youth justice system, and it entrenches recidivism," Indigenous rights advocate Rodney Dillon said.

NT Children's Commissioner Sally Sievers also expressed concern about the plans, saying improvements in youth offending are made when fewer children are placed on remand, not more.

Jesuit Social Services NT general manager John Adams said the Gunner government was posturing to appear tough on crime.

"This will only result in vulnerable children being exposed to the youth detention system, which means they are more likely to re-offend than children who are supported in the community instead," he said.

The NT Council of Social Service and Central Australian Youth Justice Network said the changes don't address the causes of crime.

Instead of working with families, the NT government has taken the quick headline, and abandoned the hard-won lessons of the royal commission, a spokeswoman said.

A perceived surge in youth crime over the past 12 months, particularly in Alice Springs, has outraged many Territorians and left the Gunner government under pressure.

Attorney-General and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Selena Uibo backed the reform, saying it would lead to less re-offending and safer communities.

The number of convicted offenders aged between 10 and 17 fell nine per cent in 2019/20 to 693, compared to 2018/19, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show.