The images shown on ABC Four Corners are shocking and deplorable (see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-26/turnbull-calls-for-royal-commission-into-don-dale/7660164 ).  Not only do these images show a lack of humanity, they are an example of what does not work in juvenile justice.  It is laudable that the Prime Minister has moved so quickly to establish a Royal Commission.  In the case of the Northern Territory (NT) revelations, the Royal Commission will no doubt make specific recommendations surrounding the incidents shown on the ABC.  These are likely to include those that ‘right the wrongs’ and provide some satisfaction to the victims of the abuse.

Arguably, the most important work of the Royal Commissioners will be in making recommendations on the long term and systemic changes need to improve juvenile justice in the NT and potentially across Australia.  Fortunately, this work has already mostly been done and there exists strong evidence based around what constitutes an effective juvenile justice system.  So what should be the three key recommendations?

The first is that juvenile justice does not belong in the corrections portfolio.  In Noetic’s Strategic Review of the New South Wales Juvenile Justice System, the report askes two questions – are children and young people important, and if so, are they different to adults?  The answer to the first is that they are important as they represent the future and failure to effectively prepare them for the future results in significant long term costs to the individual and the community.  In answer to the second question, children and youth are not ‘little adults’, rather they are developing and learning to become adults.  Consequently, juvenile justice needs to be focussed on reintegrating children and young people back into the community, and to do this effectively it needs to be separate from adult corrections.  This allows a focus on reintegration and a dedicated workforce to support the key task.

The second is that reducing the numbers of children and young people in the system requires a whole of government – whole of community approach.  Arguably juvenile justice agencies are left to deal with the failure of other agencies and the entire community.  While it is known that young people will take risks and do foolish things, those that enter the juvenile justice system (particularly detention) will have suffered significant trauma, dislocation from education, mental health and addiction issues, and invariably be from dysfunctional families.  These types of issues need to be addressed in a cohesive way – no agency can provide all the answers.  The solutions therefore need to be developed across government and the community sector.

The third is a focus on diversion.  It is not only self-evident, but supported by evidence that early intervention for children and young people at risk is more cost effective and beneficial for the individual and community than addressing offending behaviour after the fact.  The strongest evidence that diversion works is the Australian Capital Territory’s Blueprint for Youth Justice that Noetic helped develop.  Released in 2012, the Blueprint focussed on early intervention, prevention and diversion.  Maybe rather “Implementation of the Blueprint has resulted in a substantial drop in the number of children and young people both in detention and undergoing non-custodial sentences within the ACT.  The success of the Blueprint means that numbers in detention are so low, that custodial statistics are almost meaningless given that one or two new detainees will add ten or twenty percent to the Territory’s figures.

Based on our experience across four jurisdictions over the last decade, it is clear what needs to be done.  The challenge–as always–is in the implementation.  Hopefully the Royal Commission will ensure that disgraceful incidents such as that in the NT are a thing of the past.

This commentary is written by Peter Murphy, CEO of Noetic Group.  Peter is one of the primary authors of Noetic’s Strategic Review of the New South Wales Juvenile Justice System, also a member of Youth Taskforce which Noetic assisted the ACT Government develop the Blueprint for Youth Justice.