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Media Release: Invest in alternatives to incarceration to break the cycle in the Northern Territory

Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 2 May 2023

A new report analysing the chronic over-reliance on incarceration in the Northern Territory has highlighted the urgent need for the Territory and Federal governments to invest in proven alternatives across the entire criminal justice system, warning the entrenched ‘tough on crime’ approach will fail to improve community safety or address underlying drivers of incarceration.

The report released today by the Justice Reform Initiative – an alliance which includes former parliamentarians from all sides of politics, as well as pre-eminent judicial figures, experts, and Aboriginal leaders – calls for a new partnership between the NT and the Commonwealth to transform the Territory’s position as Australia’s most imprisoned population.

One person in every 100 people is incarcerated in the Northern Territory, with an imprisonment rate five times higher than the national average. Almost three-quarters of people in prison in the NT have been in prison before – and this trend is rising, confirming that the current punitive approach is failing to make any meaningful impact.

The Justice Reform Initiative is calling on the NT Government, in partnership with the Federal Government, to establish a $300 million Breaking the Cycle Fund over four years to boost community-led organisations and projects that are successfully breaking the cycle of incarceration.

The report highlights the strong evidence base behind alternatives to incarceration including:

  • Early intervention and prevention programs that reduce crime at a population level by between 5% and 31% and reduce offending among at-risk populations by 50%.
  • First Nations place-based approaches which have seen significant reductions in crime, criminal justice system and youth justice contact and significant cost-savings.
  • Bail support programs which slash reoffending (by 33%) and increase compliance with bail conditions (by 95%).
  • Post release and diversionary community-led programs that show dramatic decreases in recidivism; such as support programs focusing on drug and alcohol dependency which reduced days in custody (65.8%), new custody episodes (62.6%), and proven offences (62.1%) within two years. 
  • Alternative policing and alternative first responder models that lessen the likelihood of arrest by 58%.
  • Alternative and specialist court processes that reduce contact with the system.
  • Alternative Detention models with extraordinarily low rates of recidivism.

Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative, Dr Mindy Sotiri said the evidence overwhelmingly showed that the Northern Territory’s entrenched and costly reliance on prison had failed to deter crime, rehabilitate, or protect the community.

“This report shows very clearly that imprisonment not only fails to reduce crime and address the complex drivers behind it, but increases the likelihood of reoffending, ultimately failing to make the community safer,” she said. 

“Too many Territorians are trapped in a cycle of incarceration, repeatedly encountering a system that fails to offer opportunities to break out of it. The failure to commit to evidence-based policy in this area has overwhelmingly impacted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who are over-represented at every point of the justice system.”

Dr Sotiri said rather than continuing to use incarceration as a default policy response, taxpayers would benefit from greater investment in genuine alternatives, such as early prevention, diversion, and evidence-based alternatives outside of the justice system. 

“The Northern Territory continues to use incarceration to address both disadvantage and crime, sidelining mountains of evidence that tells us this punitive approach isn’t working,” said Dr Sotiri.

“Community-led justice programs are achieving dramatic reductions in crime, youth justice contact and significant cost-savings, but far too many of these services and programs have such limited scope and capacity that only a fraction of people who need them can access them. 

“It is time to get smart and follow the evidence to effectively fund services and programs that work, reduce crime, break cycles of reincarceration and build a safer Northern Territory.”

While most jurisdictions reduced their prison populations following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Northern Territory was a national outlier, increasing both the adults’ and children’s prison populations significantly in the last three years. Concerningly, the number of children in detention has more than doubled in that time. 

Despite clear bipartisan recognition that the current approach to justice isn’t working, and a shared desire to improve community safety more broadly, positive policy reforms such as the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and the commitment to raise the age of criminal responsibility have been followed by recent regressive legislative moves including restrictions on bail.

The $300 million Breaking the Cycle Fund recommended in this report is based on preliminary costings of what would be required in the NT to boost existing community-led organisations and projects so that they are able to meet the demand for their services, as well as costing the capacity-building requirements of new services and supports. The proposed fund would target evidence-based, community-led programs that are focused on breaking the cycle of incarceration and recidivism. At least 80% of all funds should be dedicated to First Nations-led organisations in recognition of the challenges and overrepresentation of First Nations people in the justice system.

The Justice Reform Initiative is a multi-partisan alliance supported by more than 120 of our most eminent Australians, including two former Governors-General, former Members of Parliament from all sides of politics, academics, respected Aboriginal leaders, senior former judges, including High Court judges, and others who have added their voices to end Australia’s dangerously high reliance on jails. 

The Initiative is calling for governments around Australia to move away from an entrenched reliance on incarceration as the mainstay of the criminal justice system and adopt an evidence-based approach to deliver better results for taxpayers, communities and people in the criminal justice system. 

Our Northern Territory Patrons include: 

  • Pat Anderson AO, Human rights advocate and Chairperson of the Lowitja Institute.
  • Richard Coates, former Magistrate, Legal Aid Director, Director of Public Prosecutions and CEO Justice Department of the NT.
  • Suzan Cox OAM KC, former Director, NT Legal Aid Commission.
  • Most Reverend Charles Gauci, Bishop of Darwin.
  • Olga Havnen, former Chief Executive Officer, Danila Dilba Health Service in Darwin and former Executive Officer of the National Indigenous Working Group.
  • The Hon Clare Martinformer Chief Minister of the NT.
  • The Hon Tom Pauling AO KC, former magistrate, Solicitor-General and NT Administrator.
  • Karen Sheldon AM, President NT Chamber of Commerce. Entrepreneur.
  • Sally Sievers, Civil managing solicitor at NAAJA, former NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner & former acting NT Children's Commissioner. 

For more information and a copy of the report, visit

Media contact: Pia Akerman 0412 346 746

The Initiative respectfully acknowledges and supports the current and longstanding efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reduce the numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated in Australia and, importantly, the leadership role which Indigenous-led organisations continue to play on this issue. We also acknowledge the work of many other individuals and organisations seeking change, such as those focused on the rate of imprisonment for women, people with mental health issues, people with disability and others.

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