National

Indigenous law courts to come back to NT

By AAP Newswire

Community courts for Indigenous people, offering alternatives to jail time, are set to be re-introduced in the Northern Territory eight years after they were dumped.

The courts consisted of a two-way form of justice in which Aboriginal elders were involved in ensuring Indigenous law and social, cultural and geographic differences with "white law" were taken into account when sentencing an offender.

About 85 per cent of the NT's prison population identify as Indigenous compared to less than 30 per cent of the general population, while the figure for youths is close to 100 per cent.

Indigenous people are more likely to be denied bail or held on remand in prison and sentenced to jail, according to the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.

However the courts were abolished for adults and youths in 2011 and 2012 respectively, following the Howard Government's controversial "intervention", when the army was used to seize control of NT Indigenous communities amid claims of widespread abuse of children.

This week a draft Aboriginal Justice Agreement was released with a stated aim to reduce offending and to keep Indigenous people out of prison, with Aboriginal leaders to be involved in sentencing and improved services such as health or police to Indigenous communities.

The Territory Government's Aboriginal Justice Unit director Leanne Liddle, an Indigenous woman and former police officer, said two years of consultation in 80 communities and 120 sessions found a lack of community leaders present when court was held in remote areas.

"One of the missing links in the whole process as to why Aboriginal people are having a negative contact with the criminal justice system was a lack of leadership, the ability to restore leadership or to hold leadership in a community," she told reporters.

"Community courts are a process that Aboriginal people said they wanted returned back and they wanted it done in a culturally competent way.

"They believe that without them in the picture that it is impossible to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates we currently see in the Territory."

It costs $120,000 a year to keep an adult in prison.

Across Australia, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders represent about 28 per cent of inmates compared to just three per cent of the general populationl

The NT Government is yet to introduce reforms including abolishing mandatory sentencing or lifting the age of criminal responsibility - as recommended by a Royal Commission.

NT Attorney-General Natasha Fyles said such decisions would not be made until the Law Reform Committee reports after the 2020 election.

That stops it from being an election issue ahead of the poll, with public angst about rising property crime involving youths in Darwin and Alice Springs already a major talking point .

"It is about keeping communities safe, stopping crime before it happens but ensuring Aboriginal Territorians have a voice in our justice system," Ms Fyles said.