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Royal Commission must shine light on NT juvenile justice and health

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The AMA has thrown its support behind the Federal Government’s decision to establish a Royal Commission into the mistreatment and abuse of young people being held in detention in the Northern Territory.

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon said shocking images and revelations broadcast by the ABC’s Four Corners program had sent shockwaves through the community, and reinforced warnings made by the AMA over many years about the treatment of people, particularly children, incarcerated in the NT.

“The cruelty, violence, and victimisation experienced by these young people will have impacts on their mental and physical health for the rest of their lives,” Dr Gannon said.

“The unacceptable abuse that took place at the Don Dale Detention Centre is clearly indicative of broader problems in the detention and prison systems in the Northern Territory. The AMA, at both the Federal and Territory level, has raised concerns over many years based on reports from doctors and other health professionals, including AMA members, about the poor condition and treatment of people in detention in the Territory, especially children – very often Indigenous teenagers.”

Rates of incarceration among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are startlingly high – they comprise 28 per cent of all prisoners, and are 13 times more likely to be locked up than other Australians.

Young Indigenous people are even more likely to be imprisoned – they make up half of all children aged between 10 and 17 years held in detention, and are 17 times more likely to be under “youth justice supervision” than children of the same age in the broader community.

Dr Gannon said the Royal Commission would “put a spotlight” on juvenile justice and the health issues that were often involved in getting young people locked up, and called for “brave and creative” thinking about alternatives to imprisonment.

“Health issues – notably mental health conditions, alcohol and drug use, substance abuse disorders, cognitive disabilities – are among the most significant drivers of incarceration. We must also look at the intergenerational effects of incarceration,” the AMA President said.

The revelations of shocking abuse at the Don Dale Centre have also focused attention on police practices that are seen to be contributing to high rates of imprisonment among Indigenous children, particularly the NT’s ‘paperless arrest’ powers that allow police to detain people for up to four hours for minor offences.

“There must be a community debate about alternatives to incarceration, and serious investigation into alternative methods of rehabilitation for young offenders,” Dr Gannon said. “This will require considering new ideas, and brave and creative thinking.”

The health impacts of high rates of Indigenous imprisonment were highlighted by the AMA in its Indigenous Health Report Card 2015 – Treating the high rates of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a symptom of the health gap: an integrated approach to both released last year.

“The rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is rising dramatically, and is an issue that demands immediate action,” the Report Card said.

The AMA has called for the Federal Government to set a national target to close the gap in imprisonment rates between Indigenous people and the rest of the community, with children and young people the immediate priority.

Adrian Rollins