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NT must end reliance on its broken prison system

By Dr Mindy Sotiri, Sunday Territorian, 23 July 2023

The transfer of children, and potentially women, to Don Dale to address soaring prison numbers is a glaring example of the policy failure of overincarceration.

Don Dale is not fit for children, women, or in fact anybody; it is not fit for purpose. And it certainly does not stand up as a solution for the current overcrowding.

The misguided response to move people from one overcrowded and unfit facility to another highlights a pressing need to look at the overarching issue of overcrowding in Northern Territory prisons, and the policies and legislative settings that drive overincarceration.

Overall, the rate of incarceration in the NT is five times higher than the national average, with recidivism rates also the highest.

The recent announcement by Corrections Commissioner Matthew Varley that Don Dale could be transformed into a women’s prison is alarming as a kneejerk response to deal with surging prison numbers.

The evidence is very clear that incarceration, as it currently operates in the Northern Territory, causes enormous harm. It harms children and adults while they are locked up, and dramatically increases the risk of repeat criminal justice system involvement.

Yet, we currently spend $224 million each year on adult prisons and $47 million on children’s incarceration in the NT, and almost nothing on the alternatives that would make a difference.

The Justice Reform Initiative recently released a report examining the strong evidence base for alternatives and recommended a $300 million Breaking the Cycle Fund over four years to enable existing community-led organisations and projects to meet the demand for their services, as well as costing the capacity-building requirements of new services and supports.

The evidence shows that bail support and accommodation programs around Australia are successfully reducing offending and increasing compliance with bail conditions. Post-release and through-care programs have similarly seen dramatic impacts on recidivism and incarceration.

While there are several programs like this in the NT achieving remarkable outcomes on a small scale, these programs have been chronically under-resourced and under-valued, meaning they are hamstrung from making the kind of systemic difference the NT needs to turn around its over-reliance on incarceration.

For example, the YWCA’s Women of Worth program, lost its funding in 2021 despite reducing the rates of reoffending by women in the program by 69% in 2019, resulting in an Australian Government’s Crime and Violence Prevention Gold Award.

NAAJA’s Adult Throughcare programs in 2014 noted only 13% of people reoffended, breached bail, or returned to custody. 

The Tiwi Islands Youth Diversion and Development program showed that only 20% of people who participated had police contact in the 12 months following the intervention. Similarly, the Anindilyakwa Groote Peacemakers Program, led by Elders on Groote Eylandt, have seen significant decreases of crime by children and young people, including a 95% drop between 2018 and 2019.

It is entirely possible to address the drivers of incarceration – but we need the political will to shift the policy settings so that we stop pouring money into broken prisons and start properly investing in the community-led alternatives we know will build safer communities.


Dr Mindy Sotiri is the Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative.


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