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Territory tragedy a test for Turnbull

AAP logoAAP 28/07/2016 Paul Osborne, AAP Senior Political Writer

Another day, another royal commission.

This time the issue is juvenile detention in the Northern Territory.

Malcolm Turnbull's response to the ABC Four Corners program's Abu Ghraib-style footage of youths being tortured at the notorious Don Dale detention centre was swift.

Within minutes of it going to air on Monday night he was on the telephone to his ministers seeking their support for a royal commission.

The commission will hold directions hearings in August and start taking evidence in September, with a report expected early in the new year.

While it's a reasonable political response to shocking images, the problems and solutions have been well-canvassed in a library of reports from reviews, inquiries, coronial inquests and royal commissions dating back decades.

The key issue is political will.

Australia has a political culture in which it is okay for the now-chief minister of the Northern Territory Adam Giles to have said in parliament: "If I was the prisons minister, I would build a big concrete hole and put all the bad criminals in there. `Right, you are in the hole, you are not coming out. Start learning about it'."

He described the system as "soft, flaccid, and incapable of punishing prisoners".

This week, as he unveiled a suite of changes to fix the system and added the prisons portfolio to his own duties, he explained the 2010 comments as venting his frustration.

"Nobody wants to see kids in jail, but nobody wants to see their own kids get assaulted by other kids, their houses getting broken into, or their cars stolen, and I will stand up for Territorians who are becoming the victims of crime," the Country Liberal leader said.

However, if the attitude of leaders is to put young offenders in a hole and tell them they are not coming out, the chances of lasting reform are slim.

Northern Territory voters will have their say at the election on August 27, which could see the Giles government fall.

But the problems will continue.

The rate of indigenous youths in detention in Australia is at a crisis level.

It's been estimated an Aboriginal male child is 28 times more likely than a non-indigenous boy to be placed in juvenile detention, with the rate for girls a little lower - 24 times.

While indigenous boys make up a tiny fraction of the Australian population, almost half of all male juveniles in detention are Aboriginal.

If you are an Aboriginal child, you have a three in four chance of having been either warned or charged by police by the time you are 23.

And, what's worse for the long-term, 90 per cent of Aboriginal juvenile offenders reappear in adult court.

There are myriad causes, which cry out for solutions.

Well over half - up to 70 per cent in some states - of juveniles are in detention for breaching their bail conditions (some as basic as not meeting a curfew), not for any new offence.

Simply tackling the issue of breach of bail alone would go a very long way to cutting down on the detention rate.

Then there's health and social disadvantage - family breakdown, mental health problems, foetal alcohol syndrome, poverty, hunger, unemployment, homelessness, lack of education and the lack of stable routine.

These require a concerted, long-term effort from local, state and federal governments, the community sector and indigenous leaders to tackle if any generational change is to occur.

Previous reports have suggested a broader range of alternatives to jail.

But these have been undermined by governments bringing in mandatory sentencing, putting pressure on police to be "tough on crime", removing laws which make prison a last resort and abolishing schemes such as drug courts.

The royal commission will undoubtedly find the Don Dale centre has been appallingly managed and having a culture in which heavy-handedness is acceptable and necessary.

What's unknown is whether the prime minister will have the political will to take the findings a step further and deal with more fundamental issues.

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