Juvenile detention in the Northern Territory

Juvenile detention in the Northern Territory is administered by Territory Families, since a departmental reorganisation following the Labor victory at the August 2016 Northern Territory general election. Juvenile detention is mostly operated through two facilities - the Alice Springs Juvenile Holding Centre in Alice Springs, and the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in eastern Darwin. These had previously been administered by the Department of Correctional Services. A juvenile is a child between the age of 10 and 17.

The Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre, located in Berrimah, near Darwin, is the largest purpose-built center for juvenile detention in the Northern Territory.

The Northern Territory, as of June 2015, had a juvenile detention rate of 16.7 per 100,000 people – the highest of Australia's states and territories. A report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in April 2016 showed that in 2014–15 of a national total of 900 juveniles in detention on an average day, 41 were in detention in the Northern Territory. However, in terms of incarceration rates, the Northern Territory overwhelmingly had the highest rate of juveniles in detention of any state or territory. It detained 15.6 in every 10,000 children of that age on an average day. Western Australia had the next-highest rate at 6.1 children detained, while Victoria had the lowest at 1.5.[1]

The juvenile detention system was the subject of the Royal Commission into Juvenile Detention in the Northern Territory established by Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull on 28 July 2016, following the broadcast of the Four Corners episode "Australia's Shame", which highlighted the abuse of children in the system. The final report for the Royal Commission was tabled to the Australian Parliament on 17 November 2017.[2]


Early juvenile detention systemsEdit

A system of criminal punishment for minors had existed in the Northern Territory since the territory's establishment in 1911. Historically, juvenile detention systems operated in the area of Northern Territory as early as settlement in the early 1860s, when the area was in control of the colony of New South Wales and shortly before control of the territory was handed over to South Australia.[3]

20th centuryEdit

Prior to 1970, it was common for juvenile offenders to be transferred to South Australia, due to the lack of available facilities in the Territory.[4] Essington House was established in Darwin in the late 1960s, and was the first and only holding and remand facility for juveniles. However, in their report in 1973, Hawkins and Misner called for the establishment of a juvenile remand centre, and noted that juveniles could be held in gaol for up to a week before being transferred to Essington House. In the 1970s, incarcerated youths were sent to adult prisons such as Fannie Bay Gaol. Fannie Bay Gaol operated between from 1883 to 1979, initially housing male and female prisoners, including juveniles. Juveniles were not permitted to associate with adult prisoners and accordingly, they were not permitted to participate in work or education programs.[5] The Report from the Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into Prisons and Prison Legislation (the Ward Report) recommended, inter alia, that alternatives to juvenile incarceration should be investigated. The Ward Report described the treatment of juvenile offenders as a matter of grave concern:

that they should have to be sent to such prisons as those at Fannie Bay and Alice Springs because of the lack of other facilities is a public disgrace. Suitable alternatives should be provided without delay.

Fannie Bay Gaol closed in 1979 and was replaced by the new Berrimah Prison.

In 1984, the Northern Territory Juvenile Justice Act was passed, which defined juveniles to be persons aged 17 and under, and also officially established a Juvenile Court and a Juvenile Justice Review Committee. The Giles House, located in Alice Springs, was opened as the Northern Territory's first juvenile detention center in 1984, implemented with a focus on "providing detainees with life skills and education, thereby ensuring young offenders were not put in prisons; that they did not come under the influence of hardened criminals and that they did not, after being released, follow a life of crime."[5]

In January 1986, based on the recommendations of the Juvenile Justice Review Committee, control of juvenile justice functions were transferred from child welfare services to a newly established Department of Correctional Services.[5][6] In 1987, an amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act replaced the Juvenile Justice Review Committee with two boards of management. The Wildman River Wilderness Work Camp was also established in 1987 as a male-only, long-term remand and sentenced detention center with a community service system based on the "Outward Bound" model of providing youths with a series of increasingly challenging tasks.[6] Wildman River was for boys only, as the facilities were not considered suitable for girls.

In 1987, Malak House was approved as a juvenile detention centre in Darwin. The over-representation of Aboriginal juveniles in detention centres was noted as was low education rates and the need to re-engage Aboriginal youths with traditional elders.

The Juvenile Justice Amendment Bill 1990 proposed to authorised the Juvenile Court to order restitution against the parents of a juvenile offender and to order parents to contribute towards the cost of detention of a juvenile. The scheme was not implemented. In 2001, the scheme was back on the agenda in the form of the Juvenile Justice Amendment Act 1991 and the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Amendment Act 1991 amending the Juvenile Justice Act.

In 1991, the Malak House, Darwin was replaced by the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre, the first purpose-built juvenile detention center, with a higher level of security than Malak House and Wildman Work Camp.[3][5] Don Dale had a capacity of 22 offenders. In Alice Springs, Giles House, after being closed for two years following the opening of Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre, was reopened and renamed Aranda House. Aranda House operated between 1989 until early 2011.

In 1993, Police reported that:

In the period 1 July 1991 to 31 December 1992, a total of 3,752 charges were made against 917 juvenile offenders. The vast majority of charges were for offences against property, being 2251 charges, representing 60% of the total laid in this period. Police statistics indicated that the majority of juvenile offenders charged were male, Aboriginal, between 14 and 16 years of age, and resided in the Darwin metropolitan area.[7]

Correctional Services reported that:

The proportion of Aboriginal juveniles sentenced to detention decreased from 89.41% in 1991 to 68.75% in 1992. The percentage of Aboriginal juveniles on remand decreased from 80.11% to 67.85% over the same period. Since February 1987, there has been a 10% reduction in juvenile detention rates, and a reduction of 91% in juvenile imprisonment rates. As with police figures, the vast majority of offences (74%) committed by juveniles on Correctional Services programs were property offences.[7]

In 1997, mandatory sentencing was introduced with amendments to the Sentencing Act and Juvenile Justice Act, with persons aged 15 and 16 now being subject to a minimum detention of 28 days. There was an increase of 53% in the number of juveniles sentenced and detained by June 1998.[5][8]

21st centuryEdit

Juvenile detention rates in Australia, by state and territory, in 2011, 2014 and 2015. (Click to enlarge)

When the Labor Party won office for the first time in 2001 it repealed the mandatory sentencing laws, merged Correction Services into the Department of Justice and closed Wildman River Wilderness Work Camp. The Juvenile Justice Act was replaced by the Youth Justice Act 2006, and the Community Welfare Act was replaced by the Care and Protection of Children Act 2008.

By 2015, the Northern Territory had the highest rate of detention of 10-17 year olds in Australia, eclipsing the second highest rate, that of Western Australia, by three times. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that the Northern Territory had an average rate of 16.7 per 100,000 people staying each night in youth detention centers, compared to Western Australia's 5.4 per 100,000 people.[9][10] The Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre was penned to close down after an incident in August 2014 when a detainee escaped his cell, leading to prison authorities using tear gas.[11][12] The facility, however, was not closed, and still operates to this day.[13]

Another proposal not followed through was put forward in June 2015 by the then-Minister for Correctional Services John Elferink to send young offenders to adult prison, without the approval of a court.[14]

Reports of child abuse, Royal CommissionEdit

Throughout 2015 and 2016, allegations of staff violence and child abuse surfaced, including reports of detainees being assaulted, stripped naked, and "caged up like animals".[15][16][17] A particular allegation of detainees being forced to eat feces for staff social media posts and forced to fight each other for junk food attracted significant media attention in Australia in September 2015.[17][18][19] Further allegations of use of excessive force, such as the use of tear gas in the August 2014 incident at Don Dale, came to attention.[20]

In July 2016, the ABC investigative journalism and current affairs program Four Corners broadcast the episode "Australia's Shame", which contained previously confidential footage showing detainees at the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre being threatened, assaulted, stripped naked and chained to mechanical restraint chairs, sparking national and international attention.[21][22][23][24] Following the broadcast of the episode and the subsequent political fallout, that included the sacking of Minister for Correctional Services John Elferink,[25] the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly appointed the Royal Commission into Juvenile Detention in the Northern Territory.[26][27]

Since a departmental reorganisation following the Labor victory at the August 2016 Northern Territory general election, responsibility for youth detention facilities was taken over from Correctional Services, by Territory Families.[28]


As of October 2019 there are two youth detention facilities operated by Territory Families:

Alternative pathwaysEdit

Seven Emu StationEdit

Seven Emu Station is a working cattle station which has been in the Shadforth family since Garawa man Willie Shadforth bought it outright for cash in 1953.[31] Willie passed on the property to his son Frank, who now looks after guests, while Frank's son Clarry and his children manage the cattle station. Willie had maintained his traditional culture, such as in ceremonies and law, and passed his knowledge down to Frank.[32]

Frank began a self-funded program in the 2010s to help give Aboriginal boys and girls who have been in trouble a second chance in life, teaching them skills such as catching bulls, building fences and mustering.[31] In mid-2020, the Northern Territory Government started funding for the program, committing A$4.5 million to run youth camps over the following five years. There will be a series of intensive short-term camps and longer ones. Dale Wakefield, the NT Minister for Territory Families, said that the camps "not only focus on personal responsibility and consequences, but they will also give young people a way out of crime by connecting them with practical learning, vocational education training and work programs". Permanent accommodation will be built for residents of the long-term camps, who will be youths struggling to get out of the juvenile justice system in the Northern Territory.[33]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Youth Justice in Australia 2014-15 report, prepared by Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported in The Age, 28 July 2016, Explainer: juvenile detention state by state
  2. ^ "Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory". Australian Government. Royal Commissions. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Atkinson, Lynn (1993). "An Overview of Juvenile Detention in Australia" (PDF). Australian Institute of Criminology. Government of Australia. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  4. ^ https://www.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/238217/youth-justice-review-report-part-4.pdf
  5. ^ a b c d e A Safe Territory editors (September 2011). "Youth Justice Review Report - Part 4: Appendices" (PDF). Government of the Northern Territory. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  6. ^ a b c "Key moments in Penal Culture in the Northern Territory 1970-present – Section 2: Major themes by decade". Comparative Youth Penality Project. University of New South Wales. 2008. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  7. ^ a b Northern Territory, Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Assembly, 27 May 1996, 8606 (Mr Poole, Minister for Correctional Services)
  8. ^ Helen Bayes, ‘Punishment is Blind: Mandatory Sentencing of Children in Western Australia and the Northern Territory’ (1999) 22 University of New South Wales Law Journal, 286, cited in Australian Human Rights Commission, Mandatory Detention Laws in Australia: An Overview of Current Laws and Proposed Reform (2001)
  9. ^ "Youth detention population in Australia". Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Government of Australia. 2015. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  10. ^ Liddy, Matt (26 July 2016). "The NT locks up young people at 3 times higher rate than other states and territories". ABC News Australia. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  11. ^ Purtill, James (25 August 2016). "Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre to shut within days after tear gas riot". ABC News Australia. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  12. ^ Laskie, Alexandra (26 July 2016). "Boy, 17, strapped to mechanical chair as ABC Four Corners footage reveals abuse at youth detention center". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  13. ^ Hunt, Elle (25 July 2016). "Teenage boys were locked in cells when sprayed with teargas in NT juvenile centre". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  14. ^ Oaten, James; Gregory, Katherine (16 June 2015). "Law change could see NT youth offenders sent to adult prison". ABC News Australia. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  15. ^ Braithwaite, Alyssa (26 July 2016). "A history of the allegations of "inhumane" treatment at the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre". SBS World News. Special Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  16. ^ Wild, Kate (13 November 2015). "Teen hooded and strapped to chair for two hours while in juvenile custody in Northern Territory". ABC News Australia. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  17. ^ a b Australian Associated Press (23 September 2016). "Allegations of staff violence in juvenile justice centre amid 'culture of denial'". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  18. ^ Walsh, Christopher (23 September 2016). "Claims of horrific abuse at Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre". The Advertiser. News Corp Australia. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  19. ^ James, Felicity (5 October 2015). "NT police investigating criminal allegations at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre amid claims teens forced to fight, eat animal poo". ABC News Australia. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  20. ^ Dias, Avani (18 February 2016). "Use of excessive force among problems with NT youth detention: report". ABC News Australia. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  21. ^ Laskie, Alexandra (26 July 2016). "Boy, 17, strapped to mechanical chair as ABC Four Corners footage reveals abuse at youth detention centre". The Courier-Mail. News Corp Australia. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  22. ^ Burke, Liz; Rao, Shoba (26 July 2016). "ABC Four Corners reveals footage showing extent of alleged abuse of youths in the Northern Territory". The Daily Telegraph. News Corp Australia. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  23. ^ Brooks, Emily (25 July 2016). "Gillian Triggs Calls For Federal Inquiry After Four Corners Exposes 'Torture' In NT Youth Jails". The Huffington Post. Verizon (AOL). Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  24. ^ Mandybur, Jerico (26 July 2016). "'Torture' of kids in detention shows why we need a #BlackLivesMatter conversation in Australia". Mashable. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  25. ^ Burke, Liz; Fernando, Gavin (26 July 2016). "How much did they know? NT Minister sacked over juvenile detention 'torture'". News.com.au. News Corp Australia. Retrieved 26 July 2016.
  26. ^ Butler, Josh (26 July 2016). "Turnbull Announces Royal Commission Into Horror NT Youth Detention". The Huffington Post. Verizon (AOL). Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  27. ^ Hunter, Fergus (26 July 2016). "Malcolm Turnbull calls royal commission into youth abuse at Northern Territory's Don Dale detention center". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 26 July 2016.
  28. ^ "Northern Territory Correctional Services and Youth Justice Annual Statistics: 2015-2016" (pdf): 1. Retrieved 8 October 2019. Prior to the August 2016 Northern Territory general election, the Northern Territory Department of Correctional Services (NTDCS) supervised both adults and youth who were subject to imprisonment/detention or community-based orders. Following the election, adult correctional services became a part of the Department of the Attorney-General and Justice, and youth justice services became part of Territory Families Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  29. ^ "Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre". Territory Families. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
  30. ^ Teenagers and young boys to be moved from Don Dale Detention Centre to former immigration centre, 50km away
  31. ^ a b O'Brien, Kristy (5 November 2016). "Seven Emu Station: NT bull catchers giving disadvantaged kids a second chance". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  32. ^ Hancock, David (April–May 2020). "Seven emu". Outback Magazine. R.M. Williams (130). Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  33. ^ Daly, Jon (8 August 2020). "Indigenous-run work camp 'breaking the cycle of youth crime' by teaching at-risk kids bush skills". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 9 August 2020.