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Australia Boy, 10, held on remand in Don Dale as detainee numbers almost double following tougher bail laws in NT

23:51  29 november  2021
23:51  29 november  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Tougher bail laws have triggered a surge in young people held in detention in the Northern Territory, including the first 10-year-old to be held in the Don Dale facility since the 2017 royal commission into youth detention.

It comes as the NT government confirmed a police watch house has been placed on stand-by to cope with the extra demand.

The ABC can also reveal the development of a $55 million replacement of Don Dale — which was recommended in the 2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory — has been redesigned to increase capacity by 30 per cent.

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Government data shows almost 60 young people per day, almost all of whom have been Indigenous, have been detained in Darwin and Alice Springs during November, which is almost double the daily figure from six months ago.

The NT government said the figures represent the highest number of detainees in detention since the royal commission reported its findings.

Youth justice advocates say the increase is directly linked to changes made by the Gunner Labor government earlier this year, which made it harder for young people to get bail.

"What we see is really an inevitable tragedy that has been occurring since the bail amendment legislation was introduced in May of this year," North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency principal legal officer David Woodroffe said.

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The changes created an "automatic" revocation of youth bail in the case of any breach in conditions or curfew or fresh offending.

The bail amendments were introduced at a time when the government was under continued pressure over its handling of property crime, particularly in Alice Springs.

The changes were proposed to the government by NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker, who said they would help young people "break the cycle" of repeat offending.

At the time, the government acknowledged the changes would lead to an increase in the numbers of young people held on remand.

Mr Woodroofe said the November figures confirmed the laws had had that affect by reducing judges' abilities to consider extenuating circumstances or alternatives to remand.

"This law is designed to arrest children and bring children back into court and, in what follows from there, into detention," he said.

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In a statement the NT government said "the majority of the young people in detention are on remand and only spend short periods in detention".

Ten-year-old boy among recent detainees

The ABC has confirmed a 10-year-old boy recently spent three days in Don Dale after allegedly committing offences while on bail.

The age of criminal responsibility in the NT is still 10, despite the Gunner government's promise to raise the age on the recommendation of the royal commission four years ago.

Court documents show the boy was charged earlier this month over a range of offences allegedly committed with a group of other young people, whom police said stole a car in Darwin to do burn outs on a school oval, and allegedly stole junk food from a number of service stations.

A separate assault charge related to the boy allegedly throwing a window squeegee at a service station worker.

The boy was also charged for allegedly holding a knife above his head and pointing it at a service station worker, before the group left with chips and ice cream.

He was initially released on bail pending a future court date.

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But after allegedly being found in the back of another stolen car, he was charged with further offences.

The charges related to alleged threats of violence towards another service station operator, as well as the alleged theft of a soft drink, a packet of lollies and a "Wild Willy's ranger toy".

This time, he was remanded in custody in Don Dale.

After three days, a court released him on bail into the care of a relative, ahead of his next court date in December.

Mr Woodroofe declined to speak directly about the boy's case.

However, he said he was concerned about the rise in very young children in detention.

"It is unprecedented, in my experience … to actually see consistently the numbers of young children who are in detention from ages 10, 11 and 12," he said.

NT government data shows the number of detainees under the age of 14 has steadily increased from a maximum of eight per month in the three years prior to mid-2021 to as many as 15 per month since the new laws passed.

Mr Woodroofe urged the government to increase the age of criminal responsibility to at least 12 as soon as possible.

"Children [who are] 13 and under shouldn't be in places such as Don Dale and in detention," he said.

The royal commission also recommended Don Dale be replaced, after finding it was not fit for purpose as a youth detention facility.

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In 2019, the government allocated $55 million towards a new facility on a site next to Darwin's adult prison, despite the royal commission recommending against such a location.

The new facility was originally intended to have 30 rooms, but the ABC has now confirmed the capacity will be increased to 40 rooms.

"A revised design now includes an additional accommodation block with 10 bedrooms, which provides additional capacity and flexibility for room configurations," a government spokesman said.

The cost of the additional rooms, according to a government spokesperson, is "currently being worked through and is in the process of being finalised".

Mr Woodroofe said the government's policies would have negative consequences in the long term.

"If you keep increasing the numbers and the sizes of prisons, you will fill them up — it's as simple as that," he said.

"And that's why it's the wrong approach.

"We need to be keeping kids out of detention, keeping kids on country in their communities, and supporting them rather than building bigger and bigger jails."

The government has also confirmed the police watchhouse in Alice Springs has been declared as a youth detention centre.

"This is for use only in extenuating circumstances where the Alice Springs Youth Justice Centre is unable to safely accommodate young people due to being at maximum capacity," the spokesman said.

The watch house has not been used to date.

Prior to the implementation of the bail changes, the government allocated $5 million to increase capacity at youth detention facilities in anticipation of a rise in detainees.

The government said the first stage of works had been completed at Don Dale last week.

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