Sunday, May 26, 2024

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HomeIssue 15Youth crime: compassion alone is no solution

Youth crime: compassion alone is no solution



If the already dangerously complex issues of youth offending can be fairly dealt by leaving out half the facts, then Alice Springs youth lawyer Sophie Trevitt (pictured at left at a public meeting on youth issues) has done a fine job with her opinion piece in yesterday’s The Guardian.


The story convinces us beyond reasonable doubt that she has “fierce, protective feelings” for her clients and then asserts that they are being “tortured,” that the recently refurbished juvenile detention facility – the Juvie – at a cost of several million dollars is “hell”.

She tells us little about youth crime or the circumstances of the young people involved.

Ms Trevitt, who works for the publicly funded Aboriginal Legal Aid, as a lawyer practicing in the field, has an excellent opportunity to have an informed opinion.


Instead she presents to a national readership a story that makes no reference to the offences for which the children are in collision with the law: Break-ins, car thefts, ram-raids of shops, vandalism, highly dangerous illegal driving, torching vehicles, rock throwing which – miraculously – has not yet led to fatalities.


Nor does she present any propositions for solutions of a problem which most people regard as the town’s gravest, which has driven people to leave and contributed to the downward spiral of the tourism industry.


Ms Trevitt some time ago did not grant an interview request from the Alice Springs News – possibly because it’s easier to present her views to an audience that doesn’t know the facts and their background.


The News has covered these issues extensively. This has included pieces offering insight into young people’s circumstances and being specific about some solutions, putting the obvious distress the young people experience into context.


Ms Trevitt’s factual errors are as troubling as the omissions.


The Juvie is “not far out of town, but it’s far enough away to be deliberate,” she writes.


This goes to trying to keep parents away from their detained children: “One boy missed his mum so much his call log shows him making over 100 calls in a month, but her phone doesn’t always work and she also has no car to visit.”


And: “Mothers without cars can’t get to the in-between place 22km out of town; how are they going to reach their kids when they’re 1,500km away [at Don Dale in Darwin]?”


And: “His mum doesn’t have a car so she hasn’t been able to visit. He misses her.”

Of course any involuntary transfer to Don Dale in Darwin will make visits for most families in Central Australia impossible and  is therefore an outrage.

But the fact is that the Prison Fellowship, under the leadership of the legendary Enid Harland, runs a bus shuttle from the town centre on weekends, with volunteer drivers [including the writer], asking for a $10 donation for a return trip to the Juvie and the adult prison, kids travelling free of charge.


Adult prisoners next-door “spend their summer days sweltering in almost 50C heat without air conditioning and in overcrowded dorms,” Ms Trevitt reports.


This leaves open the suggestion that the “kids” next door are under the same conditions, with Ms Trevitt neglecting to mention that their rooms are air conditioned, and undergoing – or having undergone – substantial upgrading by the current government, under the auspices of the Families Minister Dale Wakefield, not Corrections. (PHOTO above right: Each room has an air conditioner like the one pictured.)

We asked Territory Families about the rooms today. This is what a spokesperson said, information that would no doubt have been available to Ms Trevitt as well: “Works at the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre will maintain a mixture of single and double rooms. The overall capacity of the centre is not changing.
“This will enable young people from the same family groups to be able to share where appropriate while accommodating other young people who have complex needs or require their own space.
“Having improved accommodation and infrastructure will enable us to implement the delivery of a behavioural management model which sees young people accommodated and rewarded as a result of their behaviour.”

Ms Wakefield set out to change the nature of the facility, aiming to make it less like a prison. The results were serial break-outs, leading one local wit to suggest a revolving door with a taxi rank outside. The razor wires went up again.


“I know what he [one for Ms Trevitt’s clients] means when he tells me that spending days in a cell with nothing to do and no one to talk to makes him hot behind the eyes. It makes me hot behind the eyes to hear him say it,” she writes.


The facts, as presented to journalists by Minister Wakefield in May, are that Juvie has a classroom where attending lessons is mandatory (had Ms Trevitt checked what the truancy rates are outside the Juvie?), and a teaching kitchen with everything that open and shuts.


But Ms Trevitt’s most serious omission is her failure to examine the role of parents, or rather, their neglectfulness.


She quotes an unnamed woman: “She tells me that the grandmas are trying to organise visits with the kids in detention. She’s been speaking with local politicians. I saw her at a rally not long back talking about bringing these kids home and keeping them close.


“But we don’t let them keep these kids close.”


She is clearly referring to the Grannies who are every bit as concerned about parental neglect as they are with government strategies.

But are they making headway with the multitude of parents who are failing to “provide the necessities of life” to their offspring.
And that is an offence that Ms Trevitt, as a lawyer, may like to investigate, given that it is routinely ignored by the law enforcers.


  1. Erwin, on occasions I have disagreed with articles that have been published.
    I have to say I totally agree with your analysis of this article.
    Great work.

  2. Erwin, you have not added anything positive or constructive. While you allege The Guardian article was misleading, you have done nothing here but the fan flames of controversy.
    You have not offered any ways forward to help prevent crime nor alleviate the suffering of young people in detention. All you have done is criticise someone for writing in support of compassion.
    Compassion, kindness and care is sorely missing from our public debates and discussion on this issue. It is disappointing that you have missed this opportunity to support a legitimate and well informed position on a painful topic.

  3. OK, so compassion is, in itself, not a solution. But neither is detailing offences and blaming parents.
    Here’s the thing: The Guardian article didn’t claim to present solutions. Yours does, but instead indulges blunt justification of the status quo.
    If you, or the Minister, were genuinely interested in solving, rather than excusing, youth injustice, the first port of call would be the Royal Commission into detention and protection of children in the Northern Territory.

  4. If you don’t have a safe, caring and loving home you don’t have a chance. Let’s keep forking out stacks of cash addressing the results and not address the cause.

  5. Erwin, this is such a hatchet job.
    Compassion vs solutions is a false binary – you can have both. And if compassion drove a bit more of our public policy then I think we’d be in a far better place.
    Your simplistic reduction of the complexities to parental neglect is problematic and I would think also quite racist in that you’re just perpetuating a particular trope that is run out regularly in the NT and across Australia.
    Aboriginal families love and care for their kids as much as any other families. However some families face huge barriers due to poverty and a range of intersecting disadvantages.
    Your blind spots are deeply worrying for someone with the platform that you have.

  6. Erwin’s article is straight-shooting and a fair comment.
    Basically he is saying that this lawyer, in failing to address the serious offences that landed teenagers in detention in the first place, is misrepresenting the balance between compassion and responsibility for ones own actions.
    The word “compassion” is a political currency fast being devalued by its loudest advocates.
    Our politicians latched onto it in the late 1960s – early 1970s at a time when the public social conscience was being made aware of Aboriginal and TI disadvantage.
    A wonderful and positive thing in the beginning.
    But the Toyota Dreaming days that accompanied it also brought an overbearing virtue signalling class of intolerant Humanistas, mainly from Down South.
    So many young people became imbued with a sense of self-righteous entitlement that now far outstrips their sense of responsibility.
    To even speak about this imbalance risks being labelled with the “R” word (racist) or the “C” word (coconut).
    The balance must be restored in public debate. By advocate lawyers especially.

  7. Although I found Sophie’s foregrounding of her emotions in the story a bit uncomfortable, the depiction of the facility and the effects (further traumatisation) it has on kids provides the public with a valuable insight that can, in part, inform us as to what needs to change in our response to vulnerable children in the youth justice system.
    To my knowledge the “substantial upgrading” of the facility had offices built out the front of the Juvie for the staff and for meetings, turned the old offices into more cells, extended the razor wire higher, and clad the outside fence with sheet metal preventing the detainees from seeing outside the perimeter of the yard – hardly grounds to claim that conditions have improved for young offenders.
    In the past I have also spent a lot of time in the Juvie visiting clients and found the facility harrowing.
    More often than not it was filled with the sound of at least one young person screaming in distress from a cell that, although air-conditioned, is a small, dark, concrete room that I know at times had more than its capacity of two trapped in it, and where kids would spend hours on end during “lockdowns”.
    Evoking the words “torture” and “hell” to describe the place is fitting to my mind.
    Omitting that the Prison Fellowship bus run can transport family for visits was misleading, but not mentioning that kids are locked up because they committed crimes and that it’s often the case that their home environments are poor is common knowledge and need not be in a story whose merit lies in its critique of our flawed youth justice system.

  8. Regardless of whether or not our desires are the “right thing,” the act of inflicting punishment always creates an “us vs. them” rift between adult and child, and we are dealing with children.
    When we punish, we reduce a child’s ability to focus on another’s experience and be accountable. These are the roots of empathy and compassion, which are the precursor to healthy relationships and a well-functioning society.
    Punishment always brings the focus of the punished onto themselves. One cannot think of others, acknowledge wrongdoing, or aim to make amends while being made to suffer.
    We have to ask ourselves if prison is effective as a punishment and deterrent for juveniles, or does it harden a young person who might otherwise recover?
    Research on adolescent brain development does not provide an excuse for culpability, but it shows that youth are amenable to treatment in ways that adults are not. Additionally, given what we know about the development of the adolescent brain, how it processes risks and rewards, deterrence through the threat of incarceration is likewise ineffective at controlling the behavior of youth. Therefore, prison is never an effective punishment for youth.
    The challenge, then, is two-fold: to find ways to make punishment more effective and to tackle the causes of offending through high-quality rehabilitation.
    The origins of offender rehabilitation in Australia can be traced back to the early penal colonies and, in particular, to the work of Alexander Maconochie, a prison governor on Norfolk Island in 1840. Maconochie introduced the idea of indeterminate rather than fixed sentences, implemented a system of rehabilitation in which good behaviour counted towards prisoners’ early release, and advocated a system of aftercare and community resettlement
    In my opinion juvenile prison should be more like a boarding houses with house parents looking after the welfare of different age groups and certainly not close to an adults detention centre.

  9. Erwin, great article.
    Doesn’t matter what anyone tries, how much tax payers money is spent, nothing changes, maybe the bleeding hearts should take these children into their homes.
    Yes, you are correct in saying that a lot of people are leaving because of crime.
    We will be one of those families, fed up.

  10. Karen, you are prompt in judging others. I am one of the ones you judge to be excessively soft-heart or liberal. Bleeding heart is in fact informal but derogatory.
    May be those “bleeding hearts” would love to look after “these children” if rules and regulations were not impeding the process.
    The ones who know me will tell you that I am not soft, to the contrary, but have learned that you can be strict with a loving heart.
    May I ask you if you were a goody goody two shoes when you were a teenager?

  11. This lawyer is by the very definition a bleeding heart, concerned only with her client and the publicly funded pay cheque she picks up.
    Nothing about the victims of these kids, who would be glad to see them paying the price of their ways. She also fails to mention the multiple chances and warnings these kids get.
    They don’t get locked up for a first or fourth or sometimes 10th offence. Would be good to know the number of chances this particular client got.
    As far as the grandmothers go, in keeping the kids close: Too late, keep them close when they first get into trouble and they would not, ever, be in this place.
    And no the words like tortured that always come into play, even though the kids get meals and safe beds every day, pizza on weekends and visits from footy teams when they are in town.
    I think the ones who suffer torture are the staff, who are very dedicated but end up becoming punching bags because the rights of these violent young criminals (that’s what they are) seem to trump the expectations of a safe workplace.


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