Don Dale fire disturbance riot
Don Dale youth detention facility (IMAGE credit: AAP/NEDA VANOVAC)

We all remember the shocking images: Dylan Voller, hooded and strapped to a restraining chair, reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay; children being tear gassed by laughing detention officers; the squalid conditions of the cells. The outrage they triggered may have died down, but six months after the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory handed down its final report, it’s still unclear if and when we will see true change in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory and the rest of Australia.

After 80 witness statements, more than 320 submissions and more than 210 witnesses, the findings of the Royal Commission were, as to be expected, damning. Alongside these came 227 recommendations, not least was the recommendation to close Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, to be replaced with a new, “purpose-built” facility.

Other recommendations related to the use of force; ensuring the mental health of detainees; and recommendations around isolation and the use of strip searches.

So what has the government response been?

Since then, the Northern Territory government’s response has been somewhat promising. It has already announced that it will close both Don Dale and the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre, committing $70 million to replace the centres, and has accepted in principle the “intent and direction” of the Commission’s recommendations. 

Legislation has since been introduced to ban the use of routine strip searches and solitary confinement, in a move that would be the first in any jurisdiction in Australia. More recently, and importantly, the NT government also announced a record $229 million commitment to overhaul their youth justice system, to be phased out over the next five years. 

Other major reforms — if legislated upon — would include an increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, and a provision that children under the age of 14 could not be detained except in exceptional circumstances.

What is the likelihood of recommendations being followed?

Whether we will actually see these reforms is another matter. Australian governments have proven to be notoriously fickle when it comes to implementing the recommendations of past inquiries and commissions — especially those relating to issues of justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A 2015 study by Clayton Utz found that the vast majority of the 339 recommendations made by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had not been implemented (despite Nigel Scullion’s assertion that they had).

And of the 54 recommendations made by the 1997 Bringing Them Home report concerning the Stolen Generations, few besides the national apology have been acted upon. In fact, it is now reported that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are actually more likely to be removed than during the time period examined in Bringing Them Home (1900-1970).

The value of a Royal Commission, of course, does not rest entirely on the outcome of recommendations. The opportunity for victims to share their stories will hopefully have given some credence to their fight for acknowledgement.

But true, systemic change will only occur in youth justice if both state and Commonwealth governments agree to fund and legislate the necessary amendments to ensure that this version of “justice” does not occur again. Australia’s recent ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture has come at an auspicious time, when governments around Australia should be looking to changes in the NT and ensuring that their own justice systems don’t fall into the same breaches of fundamental human rights.

While the nation stopped in shock and pointed the finger at Don Dale, the national crisis of youth justice — and the overall shame of skyrocketing incarceration and child removal rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples — sits in each of our backyards.

Peter Fray

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