Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 16 September 2022
A new report showing the Northern Territory as a world leader in imprisoning its citizens has triggered fresh calls for urgent evidence-based criminal justice reform that reduces incarceration rates and improves community safety by investing in people, not prisons.
The report, released today by the Justice Reform Initiative, shows imprisonment rates in the Northern Territory are one of the highest in the world and more than four times the Australian average. Almost one percent of the adult population in the Northern Territory is in prison at any point in time, and the proportion of children in prison is almost five times the national rate.
The Justice Reform Initiative – an alliance which includes former parliamentarians from all sides of politics, as well as some of the country’s most preeminent judicial figures, experts and Aboriginal leaders – is calling on the NT government to redirect its focus to invest in policies and programs that are proven to deliver better outcomes in terms of community safety.
The report shows that successive governments from both sides of politics have relied heavily on incarceration as a default response to both disadvantage and offending. It notes that while there are promising early signs of steps being taken towards reform, including the welcome Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Agreement, there is much more that can, and must be done:
- The number of people in NT prisons has grown by more than 30% over the past decade, with the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in prison rising in parallel by 34%;
- Almost three-quarters (73.8%) of people in the NT’s prisons have been in prison before;
- 35.4% of people in Northern Territory prisons are unsentenced, increasing by 42% over the past decade. Children on remand regularly constitute more than 80% of children in custody;
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are significantly overrepresented in the prison population at 85%, though they make up 26% of the Territory’s population. The children detained are almost exclusively Aboriginal.
- Taxpayers spend more than $146.6 million on prisons in the Territory each year. It costs $122,496 to keep each incarcerated adult in prison per year, or $335.88 per day.
- The Northern Territory Government spent more than $73 million on youth detention last year. The real direct cost per child in prison per day in the Northern Territory is $3,852, equivalent to $1.4 million per year.
Justice Reform Initiative Executive Director Dr Mindy Sotiri said there was a clear need for greater investment in policies and programs to break the cycles of disadvantage which kept bringing people back to prison at enormous cost to taxpayers.
“The evidence is clear – prison does not reduce the likelihood of reoffending. It entrenches existing disadvantage and increases the likelihood of ongoing criminal justice system involvement, often over generations.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations have suffered the brunt of this failed policy, with the over-representation of First Nations people in Northern Territory prisons both reflecting and reproducing systemic disadvantage. Thirty years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and five years on from the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT, the lack of action in reducing over-representation is unacceptable.
“While there is no single 'reform fix' to reduce prison numbers, there are multiple proven, cost-effective alternatives that can both effectively reduce incarceration and improve community safety. First Nations organisations and communities have been providing leadership and advocacy in this space for decades, as well as clearly stating what is needed to prevent this over-representation continuing.
“Some of the reforms required are legislative, like abolishing mandatory sentencing and increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 14 – the minimum age, developmentally and neurologically, that children could or should be held criminally responsible. Other evidence-based reform areas operate outside of the justice system and in the community, addressing homelessness, social and cultural community connection, and facilitating access to a range of services and supports including for mental health, cognitive impairment and problematic drug and alcohol use.
“‘Tough on crime’ rhetoric does not make the community safer, nor does our current over-use of imprisonment. If we genuinely want to build a safer, more cohesive community, we need to invest in community-led programs that address the drivers of crime and incarceration and provide pathways out of prison for people who need support in the community.
“Governments around the world are acknowledging jailing is failing and changing their approach. It’s time for the NT to invest in people, not prisons, and do the hard work to tackle the underlying social issues that funnel many disadvantaged people into the criminal justice system.”
The Justice Reform Initiative also recognises the critical role of the Federal Government in ensuring the NT has the resources that it needs so we are not talking about the same issues in another 30 years.
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.
Our NT 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 Martin AO, former Chief Minister
- The Hon Tom Pauling AO KC, former magistrate, Solicitor-General and NT Administrator
- Karen Sheldon AM, business Entrepreneur, President NT Chamber of Commerce
- Sally Sievers, NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner & former acting NT Children's Commissioner
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.