Sunday Territorian

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.

 ?? ?? Boarded-up shops and businesses in Todd Mall, Alice Springs. Picture: Annabel Bowles
Boarded-up shops and businesses in Todd Mall, Alice Springs. Picture: Annabel Bowles
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