Don Dale abuse is a symptom of a sick justice culture

The 4 Corners report into the treatment of children in a NT juvenile justice facility is a stark and grotesque demonstration of state abuse of power.

As a result John Elferink, NT Corrections Minister, has been sacked, and the Prime Minister has announced a royal commission into the actions at Don Dale. This is a good start, but there is much more to be done.

Of the many disturbing incidents shown on the program we have evidence of a litany of abuses: placing children into solitary confinement for days on end; the forcible removal of clothing; verbal, psychological, and physical abuse.

Regardless of the nature of criminal activity that led to their incarceration these are vulnerable young people, whose minds are not fully developed, and who will be irreparably damaged as a result of their treatment.

The deprivation of a person’s liberty comes with a heavy responsibility — a responsibility to protect. There is nothing protective in the treatment meted out to the young people at Don Dale. The authorities failed in their duty of care, abrogated their responsibility, and should be held to account.

This incident is shameful. But so are the countless others that occur daily in the justice system across this country. There are good eggs working in the police forces, courts, prison system and immigration detention centres. But there are a lot of bad ones too. And why have we got to this point where we have record numbers of people in prisons and detention centres?

In particular, there is something wrong with a society and criminal justice system in which people who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander make up 27 per cent of the prison population, but only 2 per cent of the wider population. These figures point to deep structural inequalities and discriminatory elements of the law in this country.

A Royal Commission into the juvenile justice system in the NT is a good start, but it should not be the only thing examined. In the 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its report, Australia has learnt nothing. Continue reading

  • Julie Kimber is a senior lecturer in politics and history at Swinburne University.
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