Where next for accountability for juvenile detention centres?

The footage from Four Corner’s July 2016 expose on the Don Dale youth detention centre revealed a troubling pattern of abuse of vulnerable youths in Northern Territory detention centres. The footage showed boys being tear gassed, verbally abused, and restrained wearing a spit hood. These disturbing images not only highlight the torture these youths have been suffering, but also hints at a culture of cover-up within the justice system.

In response to this footage, a Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Northern Territory has been launched. Its report and recommendations are expected to be handed down the 31st March, 2017. The beginnings of the Royal Commission were steeped in turbulence, with concerns over the initially appointed Commissioner, Justice Brian Martin, raising a perceived conflict of interest with his role as former Chief Justice of the NT Supreme Court. These preliminary issues were resolved as Martin resigned and two Royal Commissioners were appointed in his place - Justice Margaret White AO and Mick Gooda. The appointment of Mick Gooda also played a role in partially addressing concerns over the lack of consultation with Indigenous groups before appointing members to the Commission.

There is also a large concern, that is seemingly being overlooked by the Royal Commission, over the over-representation of Indigenous youth in the Northern Territory. Not only does Northern Territory have the highest sentencing rate of Indigenous youth in Australia, with 97% of the children in juvenile detention centres being Indigenous, but also large numbers of Indigenous youths are held on remand.[1] Shifting laws and policies, including the extension of police powers, in the Northern Territory play a large part in this, yet the Terms of Reference for the Royal Commission do not appear to address these issues.[2] The Terms of Reference do make mention of noting improvements that could be make to the child protection systems, including identification of early intervention programs and pathways, however these appear as a disappointingly small portion of the Commission’s focus.  

Grassroots campaigning groups share similar concerns over the lack of community-based, Aboriginal-run programs being promoted. There is a push for support and funding for community-based changes, both for young people who have contact with the justice systems and families in crisis. The adoption of these types of ideas would, ideally, see a movement away from the largely punitive system, and allow for the underlying causes to be addressed.

It remains to be seen if the current Royal Commission can provide more effective outcomes than previous investigations and will extend to a more comprehensive view of the justice system, including how youth become involved with it in the first place. 


The author, Eleanor Holden, is the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for semester 2, 2016. To read more articles from The Student Voice, click here.

[1] Thalia Anthony, ‘Why are so many Indigenous kids in detention in the NT in the first place?’, 4 Aug, 2016 <https://theconversation.com/why-are-so-many-indigenous-kids-in-detention-in-the-nt-in-the-first-place-63257>

[2] 2016 Royal Commission into the Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, ‘Terms of Reference’ (Australian Government) <https://childdetentionnt.royalcommission.gov.au/About/Documents/RCDCNT-T...