This morning Northern Territory Police Commissioner John McRoberts was due to appear before the NT Parliament’s Select Committee on Youth Suicides that held its first public sittings in Darwin yesterday.

Hopefully someone on the committee will ask McRoberts about these conclusions from one of the many submissions to the committee’s inquiry:

“… the over exposure of Aboriginal young people to over-policing practices, and the alienating nature of the current youth justice system, represent risk factors in a young person’s trajectory towards suicide … it is vital to reduce the disproportionate negative contact Aboriginal young people have with police and the youth justice system.

… current NT Police practices and the youth justice system predominantly operate in an anti-therapeutic fashion, negatively impacting on the social and emotional well-being of the young people with whom they have contact.”

That submission comes from Aboriginal Peak Organisations — Northern Territory (APO-NT), a powerful coalition of Aboriginal Land Councils and medical and legal services. A significant part of the APO-NT submission examines the role that the NT’s Police and the youth justice system play in relation to the horrendous rates of youth suicide in the NT.

Anyone in the Northern Territory with a pulse will be aware of the too early start that too many Aboriginal kids get to their criminal careers.

“… one point emerges with clarity no matter what the process of evaluation: Aboriginal juveniles are grossly over-represented in appearances in the juvenile justice system throughout the country.

“… Detention as a juvenile is in turn a critical determinant as to further progression to the adult criminal justice system.”

That was Elliott “the Red Silk” Johnston in his groundbreaking 1991 Report into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Twenty years on, the APO-NT submission says that there has been little overall improvement, indeed the situation for Aboriginal youth may have deteriorated:

“In the period January to March 2011, Aboriginal young people accounted for 98 per cent of young people in juvenile detention in the NT. Correspondingly, across Australia, Aboriginal young people aged 12 to 24 years had suicide rates up to four times higher than non-Aboriginal Australians in the same age group. Between 2001-03 suicide rates for Aboriginal young people were 37 per 100,000 compared to 8 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal young people.”

The APO-NT submission does not suggest that over-policing is the sole cause of the over-representation of Aboriginal youth in the criminal justice system in the NT, but does submit that is a significant factor, not least because Aboriginal youth are:

“… more rigorously monitored by police and subject to greater prosecutions than non-Aboriginal young people. Relationships between NT Police and young people are a crucial intersection of the youth justice system. Where these relationships are fractious, antagonistic, distrustful or hostile, there are serious implications for escalating situations of confrontation, and community safety generally.”

The consequences of these interactions are often dire — not least for the kids.

“… many CAALAS and NAAJA clients raise allegations of inappropriate police behaviour. These include the use of excessive force, s-xual impropriety, threats, intimidation and unlawful arrests and detention. Aboriginal young people are also the least likely to make complaints against police. Some young people fear reprisals, whereas others think there is no point because they will never be believed when opposed to police.

“Over-policing can result in Aboriginal young people being charged where non-Aboriginal young people would be warned, formally cautioned, or offered diversion.”

Other parts of the criminal justice system appear to fail Aboriginal youth in equal measure. The APO-NT submission says that the NT’s youth justice system is best characterised by its failings rather than its achievements.

The NT has no dedicated youth magistrates and the work of the Youth Justice Court is squeezed in between the usual DUIs, assaults and traffic matters that constitute the daily roster of the lower courts.

Too often this means that youth court users are seen as “mini-adults”, whose specific needs and distinct characteristics are effectively ignored.

APO-NT refers to several useful case-studies, including this comment by a magistrate to a young CAALAS client with manifest mental health issues:

“… many people feel extremely guilty after subjecting their partners to severe beatings, and often use their own behaviour as a way in which to get people to feel sorry for them … Many people act in suicide bids in order to blackmail those that want to separate from them. It’s common practice, and common in this town.”

Further issues arise in relation to bail for young offenders. Most young people in custody in the NT are on remand, the consequences of which — social isolation, family and community fracture, stigmatisation, disrupted education, cultural and work opportunities — are all significant suicide risk factors.

Diversion from the court system is a commonplace and successful part of youth justice systems elsewhere in the country. In the NT, in theory at least, diversion is available to all young offenders but diversion:

“… is not available in most regional and remote areas across the NT. Lack of access to diversion is likely to be one of the main reasons why Aboriginal young people are diverted at a lower rate, when compared with non-Aboriginal young people.”

APO-NT says this compounded by legislative provisions that give NT Police a power of veto over a magistrate’s decision to refer a young person to diversion.

Hopefully these and the many other issues within his remit that negatively affect access to justice for young offenders in the NT will be put to Police Commissioner McRoberts today. You can read the NT Police submission to the inquiry here.

Committee chair Marion Scrymgour told local ABC Radio yesterday:

“I’d worked for 12 years in the health sector prior to going into politics and to be confronted by an 11-year-old taking their own life, it certainly knocked me for six and I just thought this is just so wrong.”

The inquiry will hold further public hearings in Tennant Creek on Wednesday November 9 and in Alice Springs on Thursday November 10.

You can read submissions to the inquiry here.

* Support is available for people who may be feeling depressed or distressed. For 24-hour counselling, the following services are available: Lifeline 131 114, 
Mensline 1300 789 978
, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.