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Reforms the right approach for a safer Territory

By Tom Pauling AO KC and Richard Coates, NT News, 6 November 2022

In politics, as in life, it is often easier to stick to the old way of doing things. Change is hard, and accepting the need for change can be difficult too.

The criminal justice reforms announced by the Fyles Government recently are an example of policymakers leaving their egos at the door, objectively examining the evidence before them and accepting there is a need for change.

These changes are in fact long overdue, and far from threatening the safety of Territorians, these reforms are an important starting point for strengthening our criminal justice and improving community safety by more effectively addressing the drivers of offending.

Mandatory sentencing does not work. This was a failed experiment which has run too long and filled our prisons at enormous cost, without any benefit to community safety.

Evidence shows that going to prison makes it more likely a person will return to prison – again and again. It often sets in place a cycle of disadvantage and reimprisonment which is enormously difficult to break without strong support services and programs.

Sadly the overreliance on incarceration and underinvestment in services has seen the Northern Territory’s prison population grow by more than 30% over the past decade. Almost three-quarters of people in our prisons have been in prison before – the highest reincarceration rate in the country.

A recent report from the Justice Reform Initiative, a national multipartisan alliance of which we are patrons, found it costs $122,496 to keep each incarcerated adult in prison per year in the Northern Territory, or $335.88 per day.

The cost for children is much higher at $3,852 per child per day, equivalent to $1.4 million per year.

Imagine what we could achieve by diverting some of that funding away from cells and guards into evidence-based programs and services that tackle the drivers of offending and effectively prevent crime.

Reshaping our approach to children offers the biggest opportunity to change lives for the better. Here the Fyles Government is making a solid start by committing to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 – though evidence shows that 14 is the minimum age, neurologically and developmentally, that children could or should be held criminally responsible.

These legislative changes must be backed up by investment in community-led services and alternatives to prison if we want to drive real impact. Tackling the issues that drive crime requires long-term funding for housing, health, education and employment support, as well as trained and dedicated frontline workers. 

We need to stop the ‘revolving door’ and intervene with a smarter approach that strengthens families and communities instead of entrenching incarceration and disadvantage.

We urge the Opposition and all Territorians to examine the evidence before they rush to judge the Government’s reforms. The current system is not working - jailing is failing.

We must invest in people, not prisons, to address the causes of crime and make the Territory a safer, better place to live and work.


Tom Pauling AO KC is a former magistrate, Solicitor-General and NT Administrator.

Richard Coates is a former Magistrate, Director of Public Prosecutions, CEO of the Justice Department of the NT and Legal Aid Director.

Both are patrons of the Justice Reform Initiative.

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