We are overdue for a hybrid Aboriginal-Western map of juvenile justice

Dec 5, 2022
Barbed wire fence

Highly troubled Aboriginal youth offenders are rolling down the road of Western justice at everyone’s peril and which Four Corners has exposed as perpetrating great harm. It’s about time we followed a different hybrid Aboriginal-Western map – one that is relevant, properly funded, and respected.

A Four Corners exposé has revealed appalling treatment of children in Banksia Hill Youth Detention Centre in WA. Since then, the Government has not only kept the recalcitrant youth in an adult prison but has committed huge monies to strengthening the building, providing more therapy, and employing supplementary Aboriginal personnel.

What is needed, however, is a much larger lens through which to view this ongoing calamity. These juveniles are the pointy end of a failed system. These kids are not merely an isolated group but the product of a punitive system whose rehabilitation and reintegration practices are not fit for purpose.

As Four Corners revealed, Aboriginal juvenile offenders commonly experience problems in their families. They lack safety and security. Some have neurological difficulties. Most are damaged, hungry, bored kids roaming the streets, and ripe for offending.

Youth offenders also commonly come from families whose own contact with “the law” has been far from just. The ongoing catastrophic consequences of dispossession of land, being stolen from families and prevailing racism continues. Not surprisingly, these kids have little or no respect for largely white police, white people, and white-owned property.

What is also not well recognised is the role of Aboriginal culture in youth offending. They do not offend alone but together. Aboriginal people are not Western individuals, rather, they give priority to connection. But the strength of relationship continues to be undermined by the Western justice system and by feral kids exercising culture perversely.

There are two maps on which an Aboriginal offender can travel. One is the Western map; the other, a hybrid Aboriginal-Western map which is currently overlooked.

The Western Map focuses on the individual offender. It charts the journey of a well-funded and highly resourced system. Police arrest, courts sentence, prisons incarcerate. In effect, this map moves the responsibility away from families and communities.

If individual youth offenders are relocated to a remote prison, their isolation from Country, family and community leads to further loss, trauma, and lack of inclusion in decisions and actions taken about their future.

Aggravating this isolation are white personnel who operate from the perspective of Western culture. Few have any substantial idea of Aboriginal culture. Delivery of therapeutic models designed by Westerners are directed to fixing individual offenders. They do not repair harm to relationships.

When an individual offender “successfully” completes a term of imprisonment, that youth will likely return home to the same situation.

If an individual offender misbehaves during incarceration – or likely repeats the cycle of offending, that youth will sooner or later end up in an adult prison, leading to serial offending, more victims, serial incarceration, high costs and reduced public safety.

An emerging hybrid Aboriginal-Western map focuses on relationships. To date, the map is woefully under-funded, acutely under-resourced and somewhat voluntarily administered.

This map, however, is culturally informed. It asserts the need for families and communities to take responsibility for conflicts and difficulties.

On this map, youth justice is regionally and locally administered, and includes adequate noncustodial solutions. Solutions are informed and largely controlled by responsible Elders and mentors.

On this map, there are many rest-stops. Properly funded community-owned services provide night patrols, safe houses, and cool-down rooms, along with decent food, safety, belonging/love and positive socialising opportunities and networks.

On this map, priority is given to keeping youth with families. Assistance is given to stabilising families and support is provided for FASDs and other preventable disabilities.

If the juvenile offender cannot evade the fork in the road and ends up going to court, Aboriginal mentors accompany the child and request a suspension to proceedings.

During that suspension, a youth offender, family members and other stakeholders are obliged to attend a properly funded strong Yarning Circle. In taking responsibility, the Circle determines root causes of offending and proposes solutions to address harm. Circles can also invite informed judicial officers whose report is used for later consideration in sentencing.

On a hybrid Aboriginal-Western map, courts focus on restorative and therapeutic outcomes. If the youth is sent to a regionally situated detention facility, Aboriginal mentors support the child and the family, and culturally relevant programs and processes are given priority.

Prior to release, the youth offender, family and other stakeholders gather to address reintegration issues. Subsequent extended mentoring support is provided not by the criminal justice system but by community-owned services.

Meantime, back in communities, Aboriginal healing and lore are given prominent place. Properly funded Elder-led on-country healing responses that include family are made available. Lore is the basis on which strength of spirit, stability of family, and wellbeing of individuals are to be secured. On this map, lore is used or recovered to hear complaints, deal with conflicts and rule on punishment.

At present, highly troubled Aboriginal youth offenders are rolling down the road of Western justice at everyone’s peril. But it’s about time we followed a different hybrid Aboriginal-Western map – one that is relevant, properly funded, and respected.

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