Youth bail: The other side of the coin

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By JULIUS DENNIS

When looking at bail law reform for young people, just how young these people are needs to be remembered and recognised.

“We’re dealing with children aged 10 and 11, in grade three and four,” says David Woodroffe (pictured), principal legal officer of North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA).

Statistics disclosed by Territory Families, Housing and Communities (TFHC) show public concern about youths “let go by the courts and straight back into re-offending” are largely misplaced: Since 2015-16 there has been a 23% increase in young people successfully completing their bail conditions in the Northern Territory, jumping from 53% in the year of the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory, to 76% 2019-20.

“We’re also dealing with young children who in many instances will have English not as their first language,” says Mr Woodroffe.

The public conversation about bail law has been heated in the wake of an A Current Affair special report on youth crime in Alice Springs and clamouring for tougher bail laws from both sides of politics in Darwin.

In a March 23 media release, the Territory Labor Government announced six actions they said would “cut crime, keep the community safe and put victims first”.

A spokesperson from TFHC, which is in charge of young people on bail awaiting trial, said that there were 33 young people on bail and 10 on remand from Alice Springs Courts as of April 1.

Mr Woodroffe says that the current cost of keeping young people in custody is $4600 per day.

That’s $46,000 per day for the 10 young people on remand at the start of this month. If they are still in remand, the cost of keeping them under lock and key has been $414,000 over the past nine days.

Mr Woodroffe says that there are simple and more cost effective ways to go about this problem, ways that may avoid additional trauma down the line.

Additionally, he says that misconceptions and lack of understanding of what bail means for young offenders can lead to breaches of bail.

“Someone says you need to stay at home, well ‘at home’ can be sitting at home with mum, it could be home with grandma at a different house, you know probably staying with aunty on a different day. That’s all part of your home.

“So we’ve got to sort of look at how we can provide the support, and how can we get bail that’s tailored to that individual.

“The most important thing is that you’ve got to teach children. Many children don’t understand concepts around issues of bail.

“We have young children with disability and chronic issues around hearing loss. Then you can have the overlay of children with, you know, educational learning difficulties, or mental disabilities. These can be all the sort of factors for that young child.”

NAAJA has spent time trying to make sure these rules of bail are understood by “sitting down with the child and sitting down with the families.

“When it comes to the education, it’s not just the children, it’s the adults.”

TFHC says that young people on remand are detained at Alice Springs Youth Justice Centre, Juvie for short.

There is also supported bail accommodation, which is provided by Saltbush Social Enterprises, which can house up to 12 young men while they await their court date.

Mr Woodroffe says: “Organisations that do these alternatives to custody such as Saltbush are really important.

“We have to think that there’s many issues for children around who are homeless or living in overcrowded accommodation or don’t have appropriate places to stay.”

TFHC says that of the 33 young people on bail, just three are currently being accommodated at the Alice Springs Saltbush facility.

However, in their statement TFHC did praise the work of Saltbush for providing “a safe, secure, home-like environment and improves the likelihood of young people maintaining bail conditions”.

Mr Woodroffe, who has been echoed by other critics of Territory Labor’s promise of “tougher than ever consequences for breach of bail,” says that the statistics are proof the initial changes are having success: “We need to give it time to show the process so that it can be properly evaluated.”

PHOTO: NAAJA members meeting.

CORRECTION: The statistics in the third paragraph were earlier reported to have been disclosed by Mr Woodroffe, but were in fact disclosed by Territory Families.

Last updated 13 April 2021, 11.46am.

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