29 July 2016


Revelations about the abuse and mistreatment of juvenile offenders in the Northern Territory of Australia have provoked widespread outrage and led to the establishment of a Royal Commission. The revelations also raise wider questions, with some human rights advocates urging a broadening of the scope of the Royal commission to include jurisdictions beyond the Northern Territory, arguing that such abuses are widespread.

They also come at a time when a group of doctors are launching a High Court challenge against laws that were passed last year which they say prevent them from speaking out about the conditions they witness in Australian sponsored immigration detention centres. Under the current law anyone disclosing "protected information" gained during their employment or service for the Border Force could face two years imprisonment. Despite this threat, which the doctors believe has deterred other doctors from coming forward, a number of health professionals have gone public about the conditions in the centres.

Deeper questions are also raised about the purpose and effectiveness of detention when one considers the different approaches taken in the US and Norway. In Norway the emphasis is on rehabilitation and restorative justice programs rather than punishment, and prisoners are treated with dignity and respect. In the US 76% of prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years of their release. In Norway the figure is 20%.

It is also interesting to reflect on the shock and outrage provoked by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation program when concerns about the treatment of juvenile offenders in the Northern Territory have been raised regularly in the print media and when concerns have long been expressed about the soaring incarceration rates in the Territory (one of the highest in the world at 885 per 1000,000 population compared to 716 per 100,000 in the US), the over-representation of indigenous prisoners in prisons.(27% of prison population while only 3% of total population) and the mandatory sentencing laws which result in jail sentences for minor offences and discriminate against people from low socio-economic backgrounds.

It also seems significant that after effectively ignoring the situation for so long the government announced a Royal commission within 24 hours of the screening of the program. Perhaps the restrictions on media access to places like Nauru are intended to avert a similar public outrage which might force a change in government policy?

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