By KIERAN FINNANE
‘Tough on crime” policies demanded by a “very punitive society” wanting its “pound of flesh” drove the crisis in the Northern Territory’s corrections systems, including juvenile detention.
Further, being tough on crime doesn’t work. But politicians live by four year electoral cycles and want to be popular and give the “punters on the street” what they want.
This were the views expressed today to the Royal Commission into youth detention in the NT by former Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook.
He came to the Territory in 2007 from NSW with extensive experience in adult corrections but till then, none in youth justice. In NSW, he had been responsible for a young offenders (aged 18-25) program involving orienteering and team building over 16 weeks. It was the type of program he hoped to implement in the NT.
But as the gaols filled – the result of tough on crime policies such as mandatory sentencing, “of no use whatsoever” – and budgets fell victim to efficiency dividends, he had far more basic issues to deal with.
Then in the 2014-15 financial year, his department was asked to provide savings of $13m, the sort of cut that “brings you to your knees”.
In setting their budget, they had to ask themselves, what couldn’t they change? They had to feed prisoners, pay staff, but everything else was optional, he said. They were struggling to maintain what they were doing, without introducing new initiatives.
He showed the Commission a graph, produced within his department, of steeply rising NT imprisonment rates, from 2001-2 to 2013-14.
He was embarrassed as Corrections Commissioner to be locking people up at that rate. But he couldn’t do anything about it, as he didn’t control government policy.
He had these conversations with Ministers, told them that building building prisons is not the answer: “I don’t think I’ve ever been guilty of not speaking my mind.”
After just a few weeks in NT, he could see that the future for corrections lies with community, not custodial corrections.
If the same effort had gone into community corrections that, under the Intervention, went into putting extra police stations into communities, it might have made a difference. We have to build capacity in communities, he said.
In the NT particularly, more so than in NSW, unless you get the adult stuff right, how are you going to address the issue for juveniles? he asked. Their parents, uncles, brothers come through the system, so if you don’t get it right, you’ll have to keep building detention centres.
When he arrived he thought he knew a bit about Indigenous people, he had dealt with them a lot in NSW, but he soon realised in the NT that he didn’t know anything at all. After getting around the communities, he realised there were a lot of people who really wanted to make a difference, but they were not supported, there was no follow-through.
He said he tried to shift focus from custody to community, to get community probation and parole officers on the ground, but they needed to be housed and he could not win funding support for that.
Mr Middlebrook was questioned for much of the day by Counsel Assisting the Commission Peter Morrisey SC. High on the the list of issues were:
• the inadequate training of Youth Justice staff (and his “genuine efforts” to address the issue).
• flawed chain of communications, which left him in the dark on critical issues, such as the use of the now notorious Behavioural Management Unit (BMU) at Don Dale.
• lack of clear and legally supported policy, such as on the use of the equally notorious restraint chair which he renamed “safety chair”, and gave a directive that it could continue to be used, despite the “grey area” surrounding its legality.
Cross-examination of Mr Middlebrook began this afternoon, but will make way tomorrow for the appearance of former NT Corrections Minister John Elferink.
By KIERAN FINNANE