By ERWIN CHLANDA
Dealing with the inadequacies of the Don Dale facility for juvenile detainees and its staff was a prime concern for him as the Minister for Correctional Services, John Elferink told the Royal Commission into youth detention in the NT during a marathon hearing yesterday.
But he said his efforts were stifled by the failure of the Giles Government to allocate funds requested repeatedly, as the new Holtze prison for adults received the lion’s share of the money available.
It was a time when NT finances were in a “poor state,” Mr Elferink said in his written statement.
“The Department had been under pressure on a number of fronts in particular from increasing numbers of detainees with behavioural problems, a casual staffing model and pressure on infrastructure.
“During my time as Minister … the standard and training of Youth Justice Officers was a recurring theme,” he wrote.
Mr Elferink, who was the Corrections Minster for almost all the time from the CLP election win in 2012, until he was sacked by Mr Giles in the wake of the Four Corners Program in July 2016, declined consistently during the hearing to breach Cabinet confidentiality, and stressed that he did not become involved with operational details.
This included the management of the Don Dale’s now notorious Behaviour Management Unit, described as “the black hole” in the hearing: the responsibility for it rested with the department, he made it clear.
He said one of the major policy initiatives he was driving in adult corrections was the “Sentenced To A Job” program: “My intent was to deal with the lack of employment as an underlying problem to offending.”
That initiative had helped to confine the increase in crime to well below earlier projections.
“Recidivism had much more to do with employment and the dignity that flowed from it than anything to do with the race of the offender,” he wrote in his statement.
In 2015-16, while work was undertaken at the new Don Dale Youth Detention Centre at Berrimah, substantial damage to the former Holtze Youth Detention Centre was caused by a number of detainees, necessitating repairs costing $208,000.
A Youth Justice Advisory Committee was formed, described as ultimately “not successful”, expert reports were produced including the reviews by Dr Howard Bath and Michael Vita, boot camps were started and Mr Elferink studied corrections systems in South Australia and New Zealand.
Questioning yesterday by Counsel Assisting the Commission, Peter Morrissey, or other lawyers representing staff or detainees, frequently went over similar ground.
MORRISSEY: Mr Middlebrook [the former Commissioner of Corrections, told you] some staff had behaved in a completely inappropriate way in the lead-up to the [gassing] incident.
MORRISSEY: There were incidents of staff throwing fruit at inmates in the Behaviour Management Unit.
ELFERINK (pictured): He identified at some stage the incident with the pear [which had been thrown by a staff at a detainee].
MORRISSEY: [Mr Middlebrook told you] the incident had been caused in part by the poor training of the staff?
ELFERINK: No. I will say I was concerned about staff training for a long time. What he said to me subsequent to the event was that the staff were not prepared to deal with the issue. That is why he had to bring in the Tactical Response Unit over from the Berrimah Prison … because the training wasn’t there. That wasn’t the only incident where lack of training was revealed.
Do ‘tough on crime’ policies work?
MORRISSEY: Is there any evidence you know about, any studies, any learning, any reports that heavy sentencing works to reduce youth crime and recidivism?
MORRISSEY: There isn’t any, is there?
ELFERINK: Not that I am aware of.
MORRISSEY: In terms of harsh treatment of youths when they are already in detention, there is no evidence that such treatment has any beneficial effect … in terms of reducing recidivism?
ELFERINK: No. But I didn’t introduce policy that reflected any of that.
MORRISSEY: Tough on crime … is really just rhetoric, isn’t it.
ELFERINK: No. There is a public expectation that the youth who commit crimes … are brought to justice. Whether or not a tough on crime approach deters youths from committing or not is not measurable.
MORRISSEY: Was there a media policy about tough on crime?
ELFERINK: There was certainly a position supported by a media policy that people who committed offences would be brought to justice.
MORRISSEY: Was it viewed by you that a tough on crime stance was electorally attractive?
ELFERINK: Yes. It certainly reflected the opinion of the public and this was a message we were sending to the public.
Mr Morrissey questioned Mr Elferink about an email he had sent to Tim Baldwin, chief of staff to Adam Giles, during the lead-up to the 2016 election, containing potential matters for the campaign, including “life means life, generalised youth apprehension policy, mandatory sentences for property offences, reform schools in Darwin and Alice Springs, greater restraint powers in juvenile detention, remove the notion that custody is a last resort with protection of the community as the prime concern, substantially enhanced juveniles squad to target known ratbag families”.
Mr Elferink said about all these points: “I was asked by the Chief Minister to put together a list of policy statements. None of these things ever became law.”
Challenged about the “ratbag” comment Mr Elferink said : “There are a number of families … which produce a large percentage of the crime problem. There are already police taskforces which already do that sort of work, anyhow.”
Later in the hearing Felicity Graham, appearing for the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS), questioned Mr Elferink about Alice Springs girls being taken to Darwin for detention because the Alice Springs facilities were inadequate.
She said the separation from their families had made them “sad and lonely”.
Mr Elferink said: “That’s the resources we had.”
Later Ms Graham questioned Mr Elferink about an email exchange, into which he had been copied, between two staff members, about an escape from the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre in about October 2015.
She said his Chief of Staff, Julian Swinstead, wrote to Craig Jones, saying: “It is time the public knew what little cunts these kids are.”
Ms Graham put to Mr Elferink this “reflects a culture within your office that tolerated, moreover promoted, a public demonisation of young people to whom you owe a duty of care.”
ELFERINK: “I disagree with that. This reference is offensive, should never have been drafted, should never have been written.”
GRAHAM: You and Chief Minister Adam Giles led a public campaign that demonised young people and labeled them as being inherently bad … to send a message to the voting public that those children are inherently bad at their core, as a matter of their identity. Do you agree with that?
ELFERINK: Those kids who consistently commit offences, at the expense of Territorians, and their property and their very physical safety, are people who are, in the opinion of myself and many other people in the community, people who should be dealt with as criminals when they engage in criminal conduct. I would certainly agree with that.
Ms Graham put to Mr Elferink that demonising young people and labelling them as criminals and “the worst of the worst” would isolate them.
ELFERINK: When the public suffer a much as they have done at the hands of these offenders, there is an expectation, one that I share, that they should be brought to justice.
By ERWIN CHLANDA