Locking up kids won’t fix Alice’s crime wave
TO millions of Australians, the deeply saddening events that have unfolded in Alice Springs over recent weeks have emerged almost overnight. But to those of us who have lived there, or call other parts of the Northern Territory home, we know these tensions have been building for generations.
Jesuit Social Services has worked with children, young people and families in Central and Northern Australia for more than 10 years, working alongside Aboriginal and community organisations to deliver a range of restorative and community-based responses with young people in contact with the youth justice system and to support people to reach their goals.
The current crisis is being portrayed as being driven by alcohol-fuelled violence which is why there is optimism that the recently introduced alcohol restrictions will play a role in reducing crime. This may not be unfounded – but genuine, sustainable change can only occur with recognition and understanding of how the enduring impacts of colonisation, along with high levels of poverty and disadvantage, systemic discrimination and policy failure all contribute to the increased levels of crime we are seeing at the moment. High rates of alcohol abuse are not an issue that emerged overnight; it is a public health crisis contributing to offending and violence in Alice Springs. Whilst it is a relief to see a reduction in crime and family violence incidents since the introduction of restrictions, minimising alcohol consumption alone is not enough.
We must see accountability from the sector, businesses and governments to work together to address the lack of infrastructure, under-resourcing of communities and outstations around Alice Springs and the key social determinants leading to alcohol abuse such as housing, education, employment, connection to community and access to affordable, culturally safe services.
It’s important to listen to and learn from community and to establish place-based responses that recognise the need for a public health response, rather than punitive responses that criminalise young people and their families.
Our work in the Territory, including delivering Youth Justice Group Conferencing in Alice Springs and in Central and
Northern Australia, is centred around the belief that detention should only ever be used as a last resort and that wherever possible, people should be supported in the community to address the drivers of anti-social behaviour.
The Territory already has the highest imprisonment rate of any state or territory in the country, and the evidence is clear that when people are incarcerated they are more likely to reoffend compared to people who are instead supported in the community.
That’s why we need a rethink and a revamp of our criminal justice system – to reduce the reliance of incarceration, to better recognise the reasons that lead people to offend, and to facilitate safe and equal access to support services and community-based alternatives.
Youth Justice Group Conferencing, which brings together a young person with those impacted by their actions including victims and family members, is an example of a program that enables young people to take responsibility for their actions and make amends for harm done.
Recent research into this model found it is up to 40 per cent more effective than historically punitive approaches to reducing recidivism meaning they are significantly less likely to reoffend. Victims, too, tell us that they value the opportunity to engage directly with the young person and that they feel closure from the process.
We rely on referrals, largely from the court system, as well as from police and service providers to deliver these conferences and we stand willing and ready to support more young people on their healing journey.
When we consider how to reduce crime, our responses must be informed by the learnings of past inquiries such as the Royal Commission into the Protection and
Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. Many of the commission’s key recommendations are yet to be implemented, though we congratulate the Territory’s move to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years. This is a positive step towards the goal of 14 years, which we continue to advocate for.
It is vital that we strengthen and promote connections to family, community and culture as well as participation in education, training and employment, all of which serve as protective factors against contact with the justice system.
Utilising models such as justice reinvestment, and aligning work with existing frameworks such as the Aboriginal Justice Agreement can help ensure responses to the current situation are community-led and informed by an understanding of the nature of mobility across Central Australia, and the cultural significance of Alice Springs.
Working in partnership with community can improve the lives of people experiencing poverty and disadvantage and when this is combined with systemic reform, can help to strengthen connections, build resilience and minimise the potential of falling into a cycle of offending.
That is when we can make genuine progress towards the united, restorative and thriving
Alice Springs we all want.