NTCOSS Policy Manager Sarah Holder speaks to ABC Alice Springs

Crime and youth justice is a common political battleground – and nowhere more so than the Northern Territory.

Last Territory election, there was nationwide outrage at the treatment of Territory kids behind bars. This election the tough law and order rhetoric is reasserting itself.

The fact is, the 2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT set out a path of big change. We all agree big change is needed.

Going back down the failed path of detention will not serve anyone, least of all the community.

Yesterday NTCOSS Policy Manager Sarah Holder joined a debate on ABC Alice Springs about youth justice, to discuss just what is and isn’t working.


Alex Barwick: So is a tougher approach, the only way forward. The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory certainly didn’t recommend tougher penalties. So what do those working in the sector think? I’d like to welcome our three panelists this afternoon. Sarah Holder she’s a policy manager with NTCOSS, the Northern Territory’s Council of Social Services and she’s been working in youth justice policy in Central Australia and across the NT for 17 years. Thanks for your time.


Sarah Holder: Thanks Alex.


Alex Barwick: Also born and bred in Alice Springs Rob Clarke is the president of the Red Tails Pink Tails Right Tracks program that engages young people through sport.


Rob I can hear there’s a bit of wind. I know you’re over at training thanks for being with us.


Rob Clarke : Thank you.


And Michelle Krauer the CEO for almost a decade at The Gap Youth Centre. Good to have you along


Michelle Krauer : Good to be here.


Alex Barwick: Let’s begin with you Michelle. Why do you think that youth crime consistently raises its head every Territory election.


Michelle Krauer: Look I think the bottom line is that young people, young people don’t have a voice and they’re an easy target. Instead of looking at some of the issues that actually impact on the young people let’s just attack the young people. You know why don’t we attack housing and the lack of housing and eight year waiting periods for people to get a house which is one of the things that affects youth and predominantly one of the reasons of youth crime. So let’s get to the nitty gritty of it rather than the outcome of the failures that we have as a society.


Alex Barwick : Sara why do you think it’s always a battleground issue?


Sarah Holder: We’re not unique here in the Northern Territory. This happens right across the world. In fact we see it all the time and really what happens is that Aboriginal kids end up being a political football in the lead up to elections.


Alex Barwick : All right, that is all well and good but that’s cold comfort to those personally affected of course you hear from local businesses, you hear from people who’ve had their houses broken into, their cars stolen who just want to know how to make that stop. Oliver Gordon has been chatting with locals in the CBD of Alice Springs. He spoke to Meredith about how important youth justice issues are to her. This is what she had to say that her experience.


Michelle : We’ve all had people in the past try and be serious about it and it’s taking more than what a politician or a party can do to change it or fix it. So they’re all talking the same talk but no one’s actually walking and actioning it.


Oliver Gordon : So what do you think people should do, what you think candidates should be saying about this.


Michelle : I really don’t know because we’ve heard so many versions of it. I’m not sure what I need to hear now for it to actually sink in that they might be able to do something. It’s always the actions speak louder than words. So does crime and anti-social behaviour impact your life. Yes absolutely. My car got damaged just yesterday in the car park where we are.


Oliver Gordon: What happened?


Michelle : They kicked the side panel in and they kicked the side mirror off while I was sitting in the car.


Oliver Gordon: So if someone is saying that they’re going to be tough on crime or something like that are you more likely to vote for them?


Michelle : No no absolutely not.


Oliver Gordon: Do you want a more compassionate approach perhaps?


Michelle: Yes I think whatever we’ve done in the past hasn’t quite worked despite whatever statistics and bureau figures they pull together. On the ground us as locals are still feeling the impact, small businesses are feeling the impact continuously day in and day out. So something has to give and I think it’s going to be our sanity.


Alex Barwick : I think that that is a common sentiment a bit of skepticism about the policies on offer to address youth crime issues no matter what political persuasion you come from. But that doesn’t make it any less of an issue in people’s minds as they prepare to vote, like Meredith there.


It can feel I think that like nothing is working. So how can people vote on policies that they don’t trust. I’m keen to hear from each of you about what you’ve seen actually work in the youth justice space. Rob I like to start with you.


Rob Clarke: Thank you. It’s obviously a very large issue and not a simple fix but it’s certainly solution based. So it needs to be a well-thought-out constructive approach to engaging people rather than demanding people to change their habits and it needs to be given by their peers rather than the authorities or parents or simply the ones that have had control over a long period of time now and it isn’t been what I call successful or clearly from most people sentiments unsuccessful by the sounds of things. So it has to be a larger a larger purpose so that everything we do has an outcome. So hence what we try and achieve in our space.


Alex Barwick : Okay can you give me really brief snapshot of how you work with young people and how you think you see positive outcomes.


Rob Clarke: So our program has two facets to it. It is a Winter more club based approach which engages in messaging and seminars or workshops around sexual health, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, employment pathways through sport and then in the Summer it’s more a representive space in which you have tick off so you have to actuallye be engaged in school, studying, employed already or in our all sports program to gain the ability to be in one of those spaces or you can’t represent your region..And then what happens there is you all work hard to a common goal no matter what background you’re from, so you’re all feeling as special as the other person and you’re mingling with people that you necessarily wouldn’t have done so before.


Rob Clarke: And that’s what we need to have across all facets of sports, especially in a community where there isn’t much more to do, other than something like sports, so definitely putting the resources into that style of approach then empowers the peers, to achieve outcomes and and living proof of what you can do if you actually work hard and achieve something. So then it becomes cool to be to be self sustainable, to be self supported, to look for a different way of thinking. Yeah.


Alex Barwick: Thanks so much Rob. Okay Michelle you heard Rob there, he’s saying that it’s peers, that’s really important, and he sees sport, clearly given the program that he works in, as crucial. What have you seen work?


Michelle Krauer: Look I think Rob is totally hit it on the head. It’s a holistic approach. We can’t just look at young people’s behaviour without looking at what’s behind it; where they come from; trauma. You know there’s endless things as I’ve mentioned before like if you live in overcrowded housing consistently, you know it’s a social determinant of health, you’re not going to get educated, like everything falls apart so until we fix some of these underlying problems we’re going to continue to have young people acting out.


Michelle Krauer: And you know when we know that a lot of young people who have been picked up stealing food, great, they’re hungry. You know like I think we have to be a little bit more realistic about what we think we’re trying to achieve. I mean I totally agree. You know crime on any level is,n’t okay. But what we need to do is look at rehabilitation models. You know a prison isn’t the place for a 10 year old to start with. Let’s be realistic. You know if you look at the cost of incarcerating a young person which is over two thousand dollars a day. So two young people currently incarcerated draw more funding than my organisation from the NT government. So where are the priorities.


Alex Barwick: We’re going to talk about raising the age of criminal responsibility a little bit later. The CLP this election has said that Labor’s really got the focus all wrong on youth justice. Here’s Lia Finocchiaro in yesterday’s leader debate on ABC Radio Darwin and the Northern Territory.


Lia Finocchiaro : And we need to start putting victims first and ensuring that victims voices are heard. This government is without question offender focus and the changes to the youth justice site and the bail act that we saw two years ago have done nothing to make people’s lives safer or better and we were opposed to it then and we’re opposed to it now. Our policies are around ensuring there are consequences for every offence.


Alex Barwick : Okay that’s Lia Finocchiaro. Sarah Holder I want to pull that apart in two questions for you from NTCOSS’s perspective. Does she have a point. Has any of the changes the ALP have made actually meant Central Australians and those in the Barkly are safer?


Sarah Holder: Look unfortunately there are no such thing as a quick fix even though we all want one. And change really does take time but we are actually are seeing positive results from this shift in focus already. We’re seeing some really positive, promising sorry, evidence in terms of the number of kids who are completing their bail conditions; the number of kids who are completing our restorative justice conferences and the positive feedback that we’re also hearing from victims who are involved with those conferences both here and in the Barkly and also the number of young people repeat offenders is is actually dropping.


Alex Barwick : Okay I want to talk more about that. You just touched touched on bail conditions though. The CLP say they want to make changes to the Bail Act and they want to see youth justice back under corrections. What effect do you think those kind of changes would have?


Sarah Holder: The changes would be devastating. We had a Royal Commission that found systemic failures under the old system and returning to that would just be devastating. In terms of the bail, the bail laws that the CLP is talking about – this is essentially a rehash of their 2016 policies and really what they do, is they just set Aboriginal kids up to fail, because really it’s Aboriginal kids who are most affected by those.


Alex Barwick : For those who aren’t familiar with what has happened with the bail act. Can you explain what Labor’s done and what the CLP are promising to do if they get into power?


Sarah Holder : So what the ALP did was they took the bail act, they removed the offence to breach bail. They didn’t completely remove the offence to breach. So it’s a little bit technical one part of the offence still stands. But what can still happen and what hasn’t changed under these the change to the bail act, police can still pick a kid up if they do breach they bail, they can still charge a kid if they commit a further offence when they’re out on bail. That hasn’t changed.


Alex Barwick : Okay And so what is the CLP want to do?


Sarah Holder : So essentially what they want to do is they want to slap additional charges on a kid who does what we call a technical breach of bail so essentially if they’re not in the right place at the right time, they’re going to end up with an additional additional charge on their sheet.


Alex Barwick : Okay. Now the chief minister has acknowledged though that there is more to be done around youth justice and he says that he wants to give more power to police. Here’s Michael Gunner in that leaders debate yesterday.


Michael Gunner: We want to give police greater powers when it comes to diversion so they can make quicker earlier decisions goes to criminal restitution which was mentioned when those grabs just then. So a police officer can make a quick decision about you know picking up rubbish or painting over graffiti or returning directly to the community, pulling weeds, going straight back in and doing that community service return. I think that’s really important so people can directly see the consequence.


Alex Barwick : Michelle Krauer. Has Labor done enough in terms of diversion. It sounds like Michael Gunner is saying no really he hasn’t and does getting young offenders to paint over graffiti really stop them reoffending?


Michelle Krauer: No. For the last part of that question quite wholeheartedly, a no. I think what we need to do is really look at what youth diversion is. We’ve been at the Gap we’ve taken that over from April this year and that’s one of the key things is about having meaningful activities for that young person to engage in. Ppicking up rubbish is not meaningful. It doesn’t actually achieve anything. It might make the bloke on the street feel good about it but it’s not going to change anything for the young person.


Michelle Krauer: So engaging them in positive and meaningful kinds of activities which could be anything from you know, any of the NGOs in town going out doing a yard for an NGO. It could be actually doing some kind of pre-employment program you know it could be a range of things which actually work as a rehabilitative measure rather than punitive. We can’t continue down a punitive path. It doesn’t work and if it did the US wouldn’t keep building more jails would they.


Alex Barwick: Rob I want to bring you in here. Do you think that Labor has done enough in the diversion space or do you think they need to be tougher ? Rob are you still there?


Rob Clarke : Sorry I didn’t hear, the wind here.


Alex Barwick: That’s okay. Rob I was just wondering what your take is. Do you think that Labor has invested enough in diversion programs or do you actually think they also need to be tougher?


Rob Clarke: Yeah I don’t think it’s my role to suggest anyone should or shouldn’t do things. I think if we look at just engaging young people’s talents. And we’re saying sport, but I don’t really care if its art or music or whatever it is, it’s engaging people so they feel their self-esteem lifts, because they are naturally talented at something. And then you add all the other stuff that most of us may class as normal and then once you have that self-esteem going you then have something that they feel like they may lose if they don’t bring the effort as well. It’s it’s not as simple as saying someone should or shouldn’t do things, it’s just a different way of looking at it and then putting the resources into it, when you clearly have something that’s working well, add on it. Get a massive sports centre going, that includes an arts and music and anything that engages people to come out of where they are and then become the leaders for the ones that are stuck behind. It’s making it a bit simple, but it works.


Alex Barwick : All right Rob thanks so much for that. I know it is a bit windy there, a little bit difficult to hear you but I appreciate you being on the line. Twenty one past four. My name is Alex Barwick. Sorry 21 past five. My name’s Alex Barwick. Here on ABC Alice Springs this afternoon we’re talking youth justice with our three panelists Sarah Holder from NTCOSS Rob Clark from the Red Tails Pink Tails Right Tracks program and Michelle Krauer from the Gap youth center. If you’ve got a comment you’d like to join the conversation you can do so in our text line 0 4 8 7 9 1 0 5 7. Or you can call the talkback line and leave a comment with Paul 1 300 0 1 9 7 8 3.


Alex Barwick : Sally’s called in and she says political parties need to drop the games on youth crime. It needs to be a bipartisan issue. Try whatever it takes and do it immediately. Let’s see how it works whether it’s a curfew, a safe house, boot camps etc. We will talk about that in just a moment. Sally thanks so much for calling in. Leslie just texted she says it might be a positive approach to have funding for youth programs adequately funded. In particular those for bush communities to engage young people living in impoverished circumstances. Bronny says there are no repercussions for young people. These people don’t care because they know nothing will happen to them. No government will get tough enough. Jay says It’s all linked to poverty and Dan says the same. It’s all linked to inequality.


Alex Barwick : Good to hear from all of you this afternoon. Do keep your thoughts still coming on the text line again. 0 4 8 7 9 1 0 5 7. I want to have a bit of a talk about what has been done so far and what we can pull from the statistics. Now Labor has been in power obviously for a full term four years. They they invested five million dollars in the Back on Track program, that was only partway through the term. They’re saying that’s gone really well. That 75 per cent of the thousand plus young people involved in it across the Territory have not re-offended. But look no matter which graph you look at you can sort of pull something different out of it. Sarah I’m keen to to ask you what trends you can see from whatever stats you’re looking at about whether or not youth crime is getting worse, getting better. And what yeah what NTCOSS thinks is legitimate data and what it can actually tell us about where we are, compared to say you know 5 10 years ago.


Sarah Holder: Look, we have been looking at this for the past month it’s really really difficult in terms of the data. And so what we do look at is the ABS stats and we’ve been looking at them over a 10 year period. We are quite confident that the number of youth offenders has halved over the last 10 years. That’s really really promising. There was an incredible spike across the field and I think it was 2018. That’s correct. We attribute that to a whole bunch of different policies including gutting of funding for youth services. As we said before.


Alex Barwick : When did that happen?


Sarah Holder: The gutting was in I think was 2011 in the mini budget under CLP. In fact I think we lost four point four point something million four point eight million was taken out of the sector with huge impacts on youth services in Central Australia. As I said earlier change takes a while to see so that we think that the massive gutting of Youth Services back in 2011 that there was a slow, it was slow to be felt and we think that you can see those steady increase and then spike in youth offending can potentially in part be attributed to some of the gutting of those activities and those support services that helped to keep kids safe and help keep families together and strong.


Alex Barwick : All right but what I’m also hearing is that we should be wary of anyone that says that the stats clearly tell us one thing or the other that tough consequences work or not. It sounds as though really it’s actually very difficult to find any data that categorically shows a program has absolutely worked.


Sarah Holder: I agree. I think what we can do is we can say we’re fairly confident that we’re seeing some positive trends and that’s what we are seeing is some positive trends.


Alex Barwick : I wanna talk about the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. Of course it was delivered in 2017, the recommendations then followed. They largely said that a tough approach doesn’t work and included a recommendation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 which is where it currently sits. None of the main parties have fully committed to this although Labor says in principle they support it but they still haven’t progressed any legislation or committed to a timeframe specific timeframe. Do you think that this will be an issue that might score votes for particular independents and Greens candidates who’ve been campaigning to raise the age. Michelle?


Michelle Krauer: interesting I’m not sure that is something that’s going to change someone’s opinion around who they vote for. Unless you really I guess involved in the sector you understand you understand child development, you understand the difference between knowing right and wrong and knowing what a consequence is and until you do any of that you’re actually not in a position to really do anything about it or comment on it. And I think that this is probably where we are like just looking and hearing some of those comments that are coming in, you know poverty is the number one issue, that inequality, all of those things those underlying social determinants of health. Without them we are going to continue to have the same kind of outcomes. The tough on crime, it all sounds nice but the reality is, it doesn’t work.


Alex Barwick : Rob I want to bring you in on this. You’ve probably seen a lot of the campaigning going on on social media in recent weeks calling to raise the age of criminal responsibility and yet none of the main parties here in the Territory seem to have embraced and sort of run with that. Do you think we need to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10.


Rob Clarke : I’m not really across that as in regards to what their thought processes, or why it would make a difference or what benefit there would be. Again like a broken record, I’m more solution based, than thinking that’s going to resolve anything.


Alex Barwick : I think those, just to clarify, I think those advocates are arguing that it’s not not acceptable for a 10 year old or an 11 year old to be the Alice Springs detention centre which is of course co-located with an adult prison and that it’s more than anything going to provide a pathway potentially into you know more criminal behaviour. That is what advocates would argue for. Of course those that are quite happy with the age where it is, would argue that you know if if you if you do the crime then you need to have serious consequences that follow.


Rob Clarke : And again it’s sorta when you hear that rhetoric around it you certainly change your mind straight away don’t you. It’s again it’s more around why are we even having that conversation. Why are things so bad that we are even talking about whether a 10 year old should be locked up or not locked up. That’s clearly we’re missing. some guidance, some opportunity, some some thought process in building our community so we can all be part of this society that’s clearly what that’s saying.. Yes I look again it’s not my place to say it should or shouldn’t be but it is very concerning that we have to even discuss something like that in this modern age.


Alex Barwick : But we do need to, because that is still the reality here in the Northern Territory. I just got another text through from Jonathan. He says we need to shift the debate away from the question about whether or not we should be tough on crime, t it should be more about being smart on crime. Regards Jonathan thanks for your text this afternoon. Coming 0 4 8 7 9 1 0 5 7 and talkback line 1 300 0 0 1 9 7 8 3 we are a few minutes away from the 530 news headlines you’re on ABC Alice Springs My name’s Alex Barwick and my three panelists this afternoon as we talk youth justice Sarah Holder from NTCOSS, Rob Clark from Red Tails Pink Tails and the Right Tracks program and Michelle Krauer from the Gap youth centre.


Alex Barwick : Just finally I want to talk about a youth curfew because Territory Alliance are keen to keep talking about it. We know Robyn Lambley who holds the seat of Araleun right now has been collecting signatures in support of youth curfew for many months now. They’re the only party pushing for it but if we take a look at what happened during the height of the Territory’s lockdown during COVID, kids at home with their families, didn’t it show that a youth curfew of some kind could actually work. Sarah Holder.


Sarah Holder: So what you actually saw during COVID19 was a massive or significant increase I should say in the amount of money that people had as a result of the corona virus supplement. And there was also a significant reduction in the availability of alcohol. So we saw less risky drinking behaviours and people being able to afford food, enough food for their families. And there are a whole lot of positive health outcomes. I think that it’s much more likely and reasonable to attribute reductions in crime reduction in crime to these factors rather than the fact that kids were at home. And actually what’s being proposed by Territory Alliance is actually very different. It’s very divisive. It’s not a blanket curfew that applies to everybody which is what was happening under COVID 19. COVID 19 applies to everybody across the town.


Alex Barwick: The Greens this election are calling for a 24 hours safe house for kids on the street. Michelle could something like that work?


Michelle Krauer: Look there are already opportunities and places for young people to go if they choose. I don’t believe there’s necessarily enough. However I don’t think it is something that young people are going to choose, to go to a safe house. So in that case you know we still have to go down a child protection path for any young person on the street, which has a whole process attached to it before you remove them. I don’t think that’s the solution.


Michelle Krauer: Look I mean I’m going to keep hitting my head on the wall until we resolve housing issues. Overcrowding is like the one of the most significant issues that pushes all of these other things into our community and that’s what people see and we react to that rather. Why aren’t we jumping up and down that we have people in this town that are eight years away from a house. Where do you think they’re staying. Yeah. With those families or in these houses that are overcrowded and young people tend to leave because of that. It’s not necessarily that they’re not safe. They’re just overcrowded.


Alex Barwick : It is 5:30. I want to wrap up with a final reflection. I do want to also mention that we did have a young person who was going to be on the panel because of course it’s so important to hear from young people in this conversation. She unfortunately had to pull out and then her replacement also suddenly became unavailable. But all three of you have worked with young people in the youth justice space over the years. And without that voice here it is tricky. But what are they telling you about what they want in their town in Alice Springs or even in Tennant Creek. Rob I’ll finish with you. a final reflection. Rob are you there.


Rob Clarke : I speak to a lot of young people and it’s something to be proud of, something that you know they can strive to really have the ability to achieve. So that’s through education, through some structures that we don’t have here, some facilities we don’t have, and I tell you now I’ve seen our program itself have full time employed well over 60 to 70 young young people who certainly weren’t in that space before and some are buying their own home now, their own their own car and then supporting their families and engaging others to do the same. And that’s the direction that works and I’m such a strong advocate for it.


Alex Barwick : Thanks Rob. Michelle your final reflection. What are the young people that you work with every week telling you.


MIchelle Krauer: You know I think it’s really interesting with young people. Mostly they just want to be loved and looked after. And that’s the bottom line. Just like all young people. And you know what. Just like us as adults. They want to feel valued and you know belong in their communities and I think that’s something that isn’t happening. And you know what young people want to see, one of the big things during our lockdown here in town, was that all these young people had an amazing time at home in their small family group without living in overcrowding. And that’s significant.


Alex Barwick : Sarah Holder the final word.


Sarah Holder: We don’t work with kids but what we hear is that kids want to feel valued, that they want to feel safe and they don’t want to be seen through this deficit model all the time there. They’re a strength and they need to be seen as a strength in the Northern Territory. They’re the way forward.


Alex Barwick: We’re going to leave it there. Really great to have all three of you on the program this afternoon. Thank you so much for coming in Sarah Holder Rob Clark and Michelle Krauer.