Alternative Law Journal
Whilst troppo season in the Northern Territory usually takes place in November and December, recent legislation passed by the NT government in June appears to indicate an unseasonal outbreak.
In June the NT Correctional Services Minister Daryl Manzie announced that new laws were to be introduced to allow staff at the Don Dale Correctional Centre in Darwin to use handcuffs and other restraints on young detainees. He justified the changes on the basis that changes made last year to lift the juvenile age in the NT from 16 to 17 had led to an increase of violence at Don Dale. The changes were part of the federal government deal with the NT government to minimise the impact of mandatory detention laws on young offenders.
Mr Manzie indicated that Centre staff had been confronted with increased numbers of young offenders presenting under the influence of drugs, with more detainees resorting to violence. In a compassionate statement announcing that the new laws were designed to 'protect' these young people, he said: '... there has been a significant increase in detainees who have literally been beating their heads against walls, cell doors and bars to hurt themselves. They have attempted to self-mutilate and are using a range of aggressive methods to take their anger, shame or frustration out on themselves.'
One can only empathise with the tireless efforts of youth workers in the NT who have also been banging their heads against a wall, otherwise known as the NT government, for adequately funded youth substance abuse programs, youth crisis accommodation facilities, and youth suicide prevention programs.
In the same week, the CLP government, with support from the ALP Opposition, enacted the Public Order and Anti Social Conduct Act. The law empowers police to direct a person who is engaging or is about to engage in anti-social conduct, to stop what they are doing, and leave the vicinity. The new powers apply to footpaths, shops, schools, railway stations, teller machines, parks, cinemas and private property adjacent to public property. Failure to comply with such a police direction is a crime punishable by a fine or six months imprisonment.
The Act will give police even greater powers to target young people in public spaces - particularly Indigenous young people. As the NT experiments with youth diversionary programs for young offenders, one fears that the potential benefits of diversion will be undermined by this legislation which will serve to hasten young people's contact with the criminal justice system.
Sounds like a Territory election is in the air ...
From the deep north to the deep south, where the Tasmanian government's concern to keep drugs out of Risdon Prison has resulted in reports of young children being strip searched and subjected to cavity searches, prior to being allowed to visit their incarcerated parents.
As youth advocates bemoaned this as appalling and degrading, pointing out that they too were now being punished by the state, Attorney-General Peter Patmore insisted that the measures were necessary to prevent an ever increasing traffic of illicit drugs into the prison. Given that prisoners are strip searched both before and after contact visits, and that other prisons use passive sniffer dogs (Beagles) to assist in preventing drugs coming into prisons, Mr Patmore was hard pressed to justify his position.
It has since been announced that there has been a change to the strip search policy. Children who are visiting their fathers in Risdon prison will no longer be subjected to strip searches.
The trade off: if there is a toilet break for the child during the visit, the visit is immediately terminated. It's enough to make your eyes water.
The momentum to improve the status of children and young people in Victoria was given a significant boost in June when the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVic) released its discussion paper: Are you listening to us? The case for a Victorian Children and Young Peoples Commission.
The discussion paper presents a proposal specific to the particular needs and interests of children and young people in Victoria. It is envisaged that the functions of the Commission would include:
• to involve young people in an advocacy role;
• to monitor and review existing and proposed legislation in terms of its impact on young people;
• to monitor policies and practices in terms of their impacts on young people;
• to initiate and conduct inquiries, and make appropriate recommendations to Parliament;
• to promote and educate the community about the rights of children and young people;
• to apply for standing before the court in selected cases which involve the rights of children and young people; and
• to promote models of youth participation in decision making.
The Commission would have a unique responsibility for protecting and promoting the rights of children and young people at a State level. It would also have a broad overview of the issues affecting children and young people in government, non-government and commercial sectors.
YACVic are inviting responses to the discussion paper. To obtain a copy of the discussion paper, contact YACVic on tel 03 9612 8999 or email: email@example.com
Louis Schetzer is Director, National Children’s & Youth Law Centre, Sydney.