The recent exposé on the unspeakable abuse at Don Dale youth juvenile detention centre has rightfully outraged the nation. The treatment of youths in detention uncovered a systemic problem with our justice system — but it wasn’t just a problem of abuse: it’s the reality that thousands of youths are in detention and stuck in a cycle of poverty, crime, lack of education, poor health and incarceration.
The national attention gained through the ABC Four Corners episode gives us an opportunity to influence the narrative around the issue. It is a pivotal moment to talk about the underlying causes of youth in detention, specifically the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) peoples.
Rather than letting politicians and society simply display outrage towards the abuse, society needs to ask why these kids are in detention in the first place.
Government and social discourse will often place the blame on marginalised peoples. In these neoliberal times, however, we must understand how policy contributes to wicked social problems such as poverty in Australia. This is especially true of policies that seek to address inequality for ATSI peoples.
Any conversation around the current challenges faced by these communities must be situated within an understanding of historic and current government policies.
Access to quality education is a key contributor in reducing poverty and crime and improving health rates. Although funding for schools has been increasing we must not forget the long history of poorly-funded education and support in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, not to mention the continued lack of cultural awareness and culturally appropriate curriculum.
ATSI communities need to be given the opportunity to be at the forefront of the conversation on incarceration and recidivism of their youth and be part the solution to these issues.
The appointment of Mick Gooda to the Royal Commission into abuse of youth in the juvenile justice system in the Northern Territory highlights a positive step towards a just change. The need for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice does not erode the responsibility of wider Australian society in addressing this systemic issue. Society must take the opportunity to critically engage with this unjust treatment and reflect on our values.
As transformative educators we must take this opportunity to loudly proclaim the link between well-resourced, quality public education and reducing crime. We must look to alternatives to incarceration that do not inhumanely treat young people and take this opportunity to continue highlighting the link between government policy, education, health, poverty and crime.
Tim Blackman is Fed Rep and Aboriginal Education Contact at Chifley College, Mount Druitt Campus, and Anthony Galluzzo is Fed Rep and Aboriginal Education Contact at Stanmore Public School