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NT A-G on adopting First Nations knowledge and practices into justice system

The Attorney-General of the Northern Territory discusses why we should, and how we can, bring First Nations knowledge and practices into our justice system.

user iconJess Feyder 11 April 2023 Politics
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Recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show, Attorney-General of the Northern Territory, the Honourable Chanston Paech, discussed the issues embedded in Australia’s incarceration system. 

A big motivating force in Mr Paech’s work has been to change the discrimination and unequal outcomes faced by his Indigenous community. 

“Jailing is failing,” Mr Paech stated. “We need to look at alternatives to custody, like therapeutic models and programs.”

 
 

“There are days, though, where you are talking to your family, and they’ll tell you that another one of your cousins has gone to the big house, as they refer to it, or is going to court.

“When you unpack the reasons why they’re going to court, you soon understand and acknowledge that had government invested in alternatives to custody and justice reinvestment, that they wouldn’t be there in the first place and that we’re depriving our community of cultural knowledge, understanding and connections for minor offences.”

Mr Paech highlighted that the biggest issue facing the Northern Territory in this area is in getting the general public to understand that simply locking people up is not going to change the dynamic in the territory and that other avenues need to be considered. 

The opportunity we currently have on a national stage, particularly with the incredible investments by the Commonwealth Albanese government, are around justice reinvestment,” he said. 

“That’s a journey at looking at those alternative models to locking people up, because as a nation, if tough on crime worked, Australia would be the safest country in the world because we tend to go down a really punitive narrative.” 

“That’s essentially a political narrative saying ‘we’re going to remove the problem for a period of time, and then we’re going to put the problem back’.” 

“Justice reinvestment is around community-led initiatives, bringing solutions-driven, smarter justice for safer communities, and that’s really where we need to be as a nation.”

“We have good examples where it’s working,” he said. “The difficulty I, and other attorneys and ministers across the country have, is bringing the Australian public on the journey with us.”

At the end of last year, the Northern Territory became the first and only state or territory in Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, despite nationwide calls from justice groups for years. 

We’ve raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12, are making sure that service systems are in place to then consider raising it to 14,” he noted. 

I’m always very excited to sit around that table with my colleagues and remind them that the Northern Territory was brave enough to be the first to lead in that area.” 

“What I would say to them is we’ve had passage of the legislation, the sky has certainly not fallen in on the Northern Territory; it’s still a very bright place and a very progressive place.” 

It’s a complex issue, but it’s not so complex that it can’t work, said Mr Paech.

“Having that criminal age as low as 10 is not good for young people; it gets them on a lifelong connection with the criminal justice system,” he highlighted. 

Another mode of justice being implemented across the Northern Territory is Koori Court, which has Aboriginal people working alongside law and justice groups to sit alongside the judge when it comes to sentencing and to consider the impacts of the environment on behaviour, and possible options for the individual.

Mr Paech discussed further how the Australian justice system could adopt modes of justice that are meaningful to Indigenous Australians.  

The Uluru Statement from the Heart talks about the recognition of the first laws that were in this country by our first peoples, and that is certainly the considerations that we need to be looking at and incorporating because, over the last 200 years, we’ve gotten to where we are because of what we’ve been doing,” Mr Paech said. 

He explained: “That has seen an increase in First Nations incarceration across this continent, regardless of the state, because of those punitive and colonial measures.

“This is a great opportunity to pivot away from that and look at some of the First Nations knowledge and practices that we could be looking at and adopting into our justice systems.” 

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