With the Northern Territory’s treatment of young people in the protection and justice systems under the spotlight, KIERAN FINNANE spends some time in the Alice Springs Youth Justice Court, one link in the chain.
When it is convened this court operates under its own legislation, the Youth Justice Act. Matters are heard in one of the regular courtrooms, by a rotation of judges (formerly known as magistrates) from the Local Court. Young people on the list (not publicly accessible) wait with their “responsible adults” in the lobby, along with everybody else. This is despite the Act stipulating that “as far as practicable” youth be kept physically separate from the places where proceedings involving adults are held.
The report is presented as a series of journal entries over several days. It gives an idea of the kinds of trouble some young people get into, the problems some of them face, the significant incidence of young people in “protection” coming before the court, the disproportionate involvement in both systems of Aboriginal youth, and the kinds of responses coming from the bench.
Judge Daynor Trigg is on the bench.
Mention: The girl is long and lean, her hair tinted a reddish-pink, caught back by an elastic, tight black jeans, a hoody. She is supported by a caseworker from the Family Responsibility Centre.
Her lawyer says the girl will need an interpreter. She requests a “Section 51 report”, which is about seeing whether the girl is in need of “protection”.
– I need some basis for ordering one, says Judge Trigg. What’s wrong with her living circumstances?
– There are some issues with school attendance.
– I’m not sure you can compel her to go to school at the age of 15.
He turns to the police prosecutor.
– I’m not sure either, Your Honour.
(The NT Government website says school is compulsory until the child has completed year 10 or turned 17. If the child has completed Year 10 but is under 17, they have to be in approved education or training or paid employment or a combination thereof.)
– I need some basis to get welfare involved, Judge Trigg, otherwise you are using resources to not much avail.
The matter is adjourned.
Mention: A bearded youth, red t-shirt, necklace. He is assisted by an interpreter, Eastern Arrernte language. His lawyer seeks an adjournment, gets it.
Mention: The youth is called, no appearance. His lawyer explains there was no vehicle available to bring him to court, asks if he can be excused. At first Judge Trigg says no – if the youth can’t be bothered attending, he’ll issue a warrant. In the end he agrees to an adjournment, but next time if the youth doesn’t attend, unless he’s in hospital, there will be a warrant.
Judge John Birch on the bench.
Mention. The youth is transient between Alice Springs and his home community. The matter is adjourned for sentencing when court next sits in the community – in February next year.
Mention. Judge Birch is across this file. Is the youth out of hospital? he asks. He knows he has suffered a psychotic episode. He comments on the difficulty of progressing the matter:
– It’s difficult when kids live out bush, and doubly difficult when they suffer a mental illness.
Mention. The youth is here but his files aren’t.
Mention. The youth is not here. There’s an email on file from the Officer in Charge of a police station in a small Western Australian town, requesting someone from Child Protection to make contact as the youth and his younger brother have been abandoned.
Defence tells the court that the children’s mother has been in touch. She had tried to bring the youth with her back to Alice but he refused. There are some contact numbers for relatives in WA.
The matter is adjourned until the following week, appearance can be by telephone.
Hearing: Judge Birch takes an adult matter, the Local Court is convened. It’s a seven year old offence, unlawful assault. The accused has cooperated with police and has turned up to court; the victim, his uncle, has not. Since the incident, which erupted after both had had too much to drink, the accused has led a blameless life. He is placed on a good behaviour bond, and a conviction is recorded.
Youth Court resumes.
Plea: The youth is ready to plead guilty to three out of four matters, says his lawyer. The youth yawns. He is supported by his mother.
The charges are unlawful entry of a dwelling place at night time with intent to steal and unlawful use of a motor vehicle; at a later date, another unlawful use of a motor vehicle, this time worth more than $20,000; and breach of bail.
In the first incident the youth, 17 years old, went into a house through an unlocked rear door, stole grog and cash and drove off in the victim’s car. CCTV showed the car racing along on the wrong side of the road. When it ran out of fuel, the youth decamped, but left behind a latent fingerprint which led to his arrest. When police asked him about the reason for the offending, he said, “I don’t know, I had too much to drink.”
In a second incident he was with other offenders, driving around as a passenger in a stolen Hilux that was spotted by police driving in the wrong direction on the Tom Brown roundabout at 3am. He knew the car was stolen, he told police, and the experience had been “absolutely terrifying”, brought to an end by an accident.
On the breach of bail, the explanation is that he was at an aunty’s house on the west side of town and was unable to get a lift back to his home address in a town camp south of the Gap. His lawyer asks for leniency, as the major purpose of bail is to get the youth to attend court, which he has done. There’s a plan for his future, a six month stint with the Green Army looks likely.
Judge Birch asks the youth if he’s keen about that? Yes, he replies.
He adjourns all matters to a date six weeks hence to see if the youth is staying on track.
– Give the Green Army a good shot, he urges, it might lead to an apprenticeship or all sorts of things.
Mention: This is a child. He looks about 10, his sports singlet reveals thin little arms, a baseball cap is jammed onto his tousled curly hair.
He’s supported in court by a caseworker from Bush Mob, where the child has been a voluntary resident, after getting involved with sniffing on his home community in the Top End.
It’s his behaviour at Bush Mob that has led to criminal charges being laid. He’s admitted to all of them. As a temporary emergency measure he is now living with an aunty in Alice. A carer from his home community is on her way to take him back. The matter is adjourned to the Youth Court in Katherine.
Mention: The youth has failed diversion. He started well but dropped off. He hasn’t been going to school. He needs an Anmatjere interpreter. One will be available next week. Adjourned.
Plea: It’s the girl with the tinted reddish-pink hair, piled up on top of her head today. An interpreter in the Luritja language is assisting. She is charged with unlawful entry with intent to steal; aggravating circumstance, it was at night. “Guilty.” The item stolen: a red laser pointer, worth $20. “Guilty”.
Her mother is there alongside her, smiles encouragingly. The girl reacts with teenage irritation.
A co-offender smashed the shop window with a large rock, and with others stole various items of clothing. Police observed the break-in on CCTV as it was unfolding. They arrived, the offenders ran off, this girl separated from them, was arrested, made full admissions. Told police it was the “wrong thing” to do, it’s “not right to break in”. She has no prior history of offending.
Defence has a letter about the girl’s circumstances from the Family Responsibility Centre. It contains some “sensitive matters” and she asks for the court to be closed.
Mention: The youth looks like he has just got out of bed, hair standing up. His grandmother has come to court to support him. He’s got eight hours of community work left to do.
– Do the hours, put the trouble behind you, says Judge Birch.
He adjourns the matter for a few weeks but the youth will be excused if he has completed the community work. His grandmother looks happy.
Mention: A slender, handsome youth. His matter has been part-heard by another judge. Defence is requesting community work and supervision. A pre-sentence report is on file.
Judge Birch orders a community work assessment report and adjourns the matter to a date when the initial judge will be sitting.
Mention: No appearance and it’s the second time. The judge orders that a warrant be issued.
Mention: Youth of about 15, supported by grandmother and a carer from Bush Mob. Several files.
The court hears that he’s doing well at Bush Mob, fitting in well with the other young people, responding to staff, getting involved in activities, going to school most days.
Defence wants him to have more time to demonstrate his efforts at rehabilitation.
Granted, with an encouraging remark. The matter is adjourned for two weeks’ time.
Judge Greg Borchers is on the bench.
Mention: No appearance on first call. The youth has multiple files, some of them South Australian matters. He will be pleading not guilty. Judge Borchers is irritated from the start.
– You’re asking me to set aside a huge amount of court time and he can’t even attend court?
The youth turns up, however. Tousled hair, singlet, about 14 or 15, accompanied by his father.
The defence lawyer indicates there are elements missing in the various files.
Judge Borchers insists on her putting all the matters that are agreed to in writing. He’s not giving a hearing date unless she does so.
He starts going through the files, one by one, asking her what is missing, challenging her on having put the police evidence to her client.
She says she’s requested further material (such as forensic reports) some weeks ago, and none has been provided.
– You’re running this like a Supreme Court trial, but this is a Youth Court, people are supposed to be taking responsibility for their actions.
There are eye witnesses for the charge of reckless damage to a water tank; statements from co-offenders on a stealing charge, Judge Borchers puts to her.
She’s unrattled. She asks for dates of offences to be confirmed; there’s meant to be a copy of the police interview – there may be admissibility issues.
– You understand your client is going to stay on very strict bail conditions until February or March of next year?
He adjourns the matter for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, police prosecution must serve all forensic reports and witness statements and advise the court on how the co-offenders have been dealt with.
The youth’s bail is enlarged, he’s on curfew from 7pm-7am.
Mention: The youth has failed diversion but has been going to school. He is bailed to reside at ASYASS (Alice Springs Youth Accomodation Support Services.) Adjourned for a week.
Mention: The youth hasn’t appeared so far. This is the lad who was to start with the Green Army. He had been bailed to live with his mother. This matter involves new offending.
Complication: his mother has been charged as a co-offender.
Judge Borchers gives the youth’s lawyer till lunchtime to find him.
Judge Daynor Trigg on the bench.
There are no youth matters ready to go, but an adult matter needs attention. Trouble is it involves multiple counts of possession of pornographic material involving children.
– It’s not appropriate that this matter be anywhere near a youth court, comments Judge Trigg.
Nonetheless, he wants to do something while he’s waiting. Then the matter is delayed anyway, as the defence lawyer has been held up in a mental health tribunal matter.
Some youth matters dribble in.
Mention: The youth looks about 16. He has a thick matted mop of hair and a beard, he keeps his head bowed. He’s not small, but even so his clothes are a few sizes too big for him.
His responsible adult is a carer from ASYASS where he has been living for the last four months.
There has been some re-engagement with his family in Alice Springs, a brother mainly. His father is from the Top End; his mother from a community north of Alice.
His defence lawyer seeks an adjournment till Monday, when family members might be able to get to court. She indicates that there will pleas of guilty to some charges, others have been withdrawn.
– Is the ASYASS carer exercising parental responsibility? asks Judge Trigg. That’s what being the responsible adult means.
The ASYASS carer agrees.
Mention: The youth is not in court, not even in Alice. The family in a community well to the north have been in touch with his caseworker; they couldn’t make it in and in fact they want to keep the youth out bush till Christmas.
The defence lawyer asks for no warrant to be issued, for the family to be given a chance to bring him in at a later date. The youth has been assessed as suitable for diversion.
Judge Trigg gives them two weeks. If they don’t make it then, warrants will be issued, for the youth and for his aunty as his responsible adult.
Plea and sentencing: The youth is supported by his mother and assisted by an Anmatjere interpreter. He’s been on diversion, finished now and his pleas can be finalised (diversion is only available for those who plead guilty).
The offending took place a year ago, when with two others he broke into a house, causing damage, intending to steal. They opened cupboards and drawers in both the main house and a granny flat, occupied by two women, taking clothes and $130 in cash.
The damage cost about $1000 to repair.
They were far from cunning thieves. One of them took a bite from an apple and left it on the kitchen table. An iPod that did not belong to the occupants was left behind on a bed.
For this youth there was also an “unusual aspect” to the story, as noted by Judge Trigg. His family became aware of what he’d done and took him to the house to apologise and return the stolen items. Unfortunately for the victims, not all of the returned items were theirs.
Nonetheless, it shows the family took responsibility, commented Judge Trigg – “something that rarely happens”.
The youth is 15, 14 at the time of the offending. He was not the primary offender, he didn’t want to break-in but accepts he was part of a “common purpose”. He has been going to school and has not been in any further trouble. He has completed his hours of community service and also made a written apology. His lawyer asks for no conviction to be recorded and no further penalty except for the victim of crime levy, as the boy has no income.
Judge Trigg finds him guilty with no conviction recorded and places him on a good behaviour bond. He speaks to the youth about how break-ins make people feel unsafe in their own home, how they worry that the intruders might come back, how they don’t like strangers going through their personal belongings. All this is translated by the interpreter.
Judge Trigg comments about a Year 10 youth needing an interpreter – “clearly the education system is not working … it’s a sad indictment.”
(An alternative view might be that the youth appreciated the presence of someone who could explain to him in his first language what was being said. Statements from the bench and the court process generally can be hard to follow even for native English speakers.)
Mention: The youth is subject to a long-term child protection order and the court is closed.
Plea: The possession and distribution of child pornographic material matter is ready to proceed. Local Court is convened. The charges are read, guilty pleas entered. The offending was detected by an undercover federal police officer. A date for sentencing in the Supreme Court is set. The man (at a glance, a Caucasian Mr Normal) is remanded in custody.
Mention: Youth Court is reconvened. The matter is heard by phone. This is the youth who has stayed behind in a town in WA. He’s there at the police station now with this aunty and nanna. There’s no mention of his little brother.
The time difference and other complications have meant that his defence lawyer hasn’t been able to get instructions and asks for an adjournment.
Is the youth going to school? Judge Trigg wants to know.
Definitely at school every day, says the police officer.
Can he be at the police station again in a fortnight? asks Judge Trigg.
Mention: The youth is in care and the court is closed.
Mention: The youth is in care and the court is closed.
Judge Greg Borchers on the bench.
Sentencing: The youth is accompanied by his parents or guardians. He is the only Caucasian accused observed in this court over five days. The court is closed, without explanation.
Mention: The youth is perhaps 13 or 14. The court is closed.
Mention: The girl looks about 10 or 11.
– Is she under a protection order? asks Judge Borchers.
– Yes, until she’s 18, answers her caseworker.
The court is closed.
Mention: Two youths, both under protection orders. The court is closed.