As the boy at the centre of the explosive Don Dale abuse scandal posts an emotional letter to the Australian community, an Indigenous policy expert has warned that the Northern Territory’s problematic law and order system is unlikely to change.
With the Northern Territory on the cusp of an election, law and order has become a hot issue following Four Corners‘ disturbing revelations about treatment of detained youth on Monday evening.
The report, which included footage of teenagers being subjected to tear gas and excessive force, triggered Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to announce a royal commission on Tuesday morning.
Rolf Gerritsen, political commentator and professorial fellow at Charles Darwin University in Alice Springs, said the Northern Territory was running a “covertly racist” legal system that resulted in Aborigines being unfairly harassed by police.
But when it came to loosening a system that sees so many Aboriginal youth locked up, Professor Gerritsen said there were two sides to the story.
‘It’s not a crime problem, it’s a social problem’
Aboriginal youth are 26 times more likely to be jailed than others in Australia, while in the NT, the incarceration rate is 847 people per 100,000 people.
For some perspective, that rate in the USA – famed for locking up citizens – is 623 per 100,000.
The NT government has taken a particularly harsh approach to youth crime,
And despite NT residents heading to the polls next month, Professor Gerritsen said it was unlikely the winning party would discard the current tough-on-crime stance.
“When push comes to shove, I don’t think it will happen,” said Professor Gerritsen, claiming if elected, the Labor Party would not want to be seen as lenient on crime.
He said Aboriginal youth crime was a bugbear for many NT residents.
“There’s another side to the argument. People are sick of being broken into and houses being smashed by rocks,” he said.
He also said many Aborigines were locked up because of issues stemming from family problems or “basic inefficiencies”, such as failing to pay fines or renew their driver’s license.
“It’s not a crime problem, it’s a social problem,” he said.
And it’s not a problem that’s improving: according to the ABS, the proportion of Aborigines in Australian prisons has actually increased since the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 25 years ago.
Boy in footage writes ‘thank you letter’
The haunting image of 19-year-old Dylan Voller, hooded and strapped to a chair, went viral on Tuesday and helped expose the vile nature of the abuse at Don Dale.
Voller’s lawyer Peter O’Brien shared a moving letter from Voller himself via his Twitter account on Tuesday evening.
“I would just like to thank the whole Australian community for the support you have showed for us boys as well as our families,” Voller wrote.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to appologize [sic] to the community for wrongs and I cant [sic] wait to get out and make up for them.”
Professor Gerritsen referred to the behaviour of guards at Don Dale as “bus conductor syndrome” and said he hoped the scrutiny would lead to better training.
“You take low status people, you give them job that has some power, and they will overuse it,” he said.
In Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania, youth detention centres are check on by independent custodial inspectors.
There is no such inspector in the Northern Territory.
Dylan Voller has instructed us to release this letter: pic.twitter.com/yJoZHoAgJn
— Peter O'Brien (@OBrienSolicitor) July 26, 2016