‘Breaking the Cycle’?: Criminalising youth in Alice Springs‘

During recent months, as Australians have been prepped to vote on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, images of rampant crime and social chaos in the Central Australian town of Alice Springs have been prominent in the mainstream media. Many who are opposed to the Voice have claimed that the situation in Alice Springs demonstrates exactly why it will not work. As I prepare this article, Peter Dutton is facing criticism for using the town in a game of political football in baseless claims of rampant child sexual abuse among its Aboriginal community.

The use of Alice Springs’s youth in the platforming of political agendas is nothing new, and as a result they and their kin have been the subjects of heavy-handed, dehumanising governmental policies time and time again. The persistent reshaping of racialised regimes of governance has had a fundamental impact on how young people are treated in Alice Springs today, and in turn how they act and respond to professionals and community members. Throughout my field work in 2019, I worked with young Aboriginal people and was in close contact with the various professionals carrying out government-funded approaches to managing youth. The interventions I witnessed had some real benefits for young people and their families, but they also subjected young people to increased surveillance and were characterised by culturally inappropriate emphases on individualism and personal choice. Such programs are inconsistent with the poverty, overcrowding and intergenerational trauma that are the features of everyday life for many involved.

The program I witnessed, launched by the NT government in 2019, was ‘Breaking the Cycle’, a seven-point plan and series of cross-agency initiatives that claimed to ‘take aim’ at ‘youth crime and anti-social behaviour’. Breaking the Cycle included much-needed funding for the town’s youth services and put youth workers on the streets of the town centre to carry out nightly foot patrols. Via its cross-agency initiatives, it also led to more security guards patrolling the streets of the town centre and, controversially, school-based policing. I directly observed the implementation of this plan, which was sold as a novel one that promised to be a game-changer. It has since quietly reached its conclusion, without much of a reduction in the behaviours it proclaimed it would fix.

Policies and programs that have targeted Aboriginal people, particularly in the Northern Territory, have always had complicated and contradictory implications for Aboriginal communities, and this initiative, while delivering less pain and injustice than some of its predecessors, continued the management of Aboriginal people through processes of Othering, and the targeting of youth through racialised characterisations. What was new was how this program put the emphasis on individual choice, or choosing ‘a better path’, obscuring the structural conditions and entrenched disadvantage that propel young people into behaving in ways deemed disruptive by wider society.

‘Anti-social behaviour’ was how Breaking the Cycle referred to the behaviour the young people themselves call ‘street-walking’. This is the act of ‘hanging out’ or walking around town in groups, usually without a dedicated destination or purpose. Unlike its supposed counterpart, crime, this behaviour is by its nature innocuous, yet it is treated as undesirable and in need of correction. Breaking the Cycle’s seven-point plan targeted street-walking in a multitude of ways. It extended operation hours at the town’s two Aboriginal youth centres; expanded funding for a youth patrol bus run by Tangentyere Council; established a new Aboriginal youth outreach service; extended the role of Youth Outreach Re-Engagement Officers (YOREOs) to include carrying out foot patrols in the town centre seven nights a week; promised two school engagement officers and three school compliance officers; and increased CCTV surveillance via the installation of additional cameras in public areas, including the CBD. Security guards also served as stand-ins for police, with local company Talice Security awarded a contract to provide security services in the CBD. Talice Security personnel worked in collaboration with local police, who were reported in 2019 to be present in numbers twice the national average. Another component of cross-agency efforts was a $5 million investment to reduce crime through an ‘environmental design suite of initiatives, including the construction of safety zones, and improved lighting and way finding’.

Some components of the plan had benefits for local Aboriginal youth, especially via the increased spending on youth services. This allowed the town’s two youth centres to hold regular nightly activities and to establish beneficial, therapeutic relationships with the young people who attended them. The greatest benefit, however, seemed to lie in the discretionary way the plan was applied by organisers, who used monies to offer families consistent meals at their nightly events. Food scarcity is a persistent issue in Alice Springs, where a sizeable Aboriginal family can often be dependent on one welfare payment, and malnutrition is not uncommon. Nightly access to nutritious meals granted by Breaking the Cycle would most certainly haveeased some of the financial strain on Aboriginal households, particularly those headed by grandparents caring for numerous children.

One of the most controversial aspects of the plan, however, was the NT government’s incorporation of ‘school-based policing’ into its cross-agency efforts, despite professionals raising concerns that this would lead to the criminalisation of children as it has in similar programs in the United States. While the plan made little mention of police, an emphasis on security and policing was woven through it. YOREOs operated in collaboration with police to perform the ambiguous role of ‘engagement’, and reported to them throughout their night-time duties.

Breaking the Cycle was introduced to the Alice Springs community via the delivery of flyers to every house across town. The aim, these flyers announced, was to ‘tackle youth crime and anti-social behaviour’ via the enlisting of Aboriginal organisations and increased deployment of security personnel and apparatus. The plan promised to get youth ‘on a better path and away from a lifetime of crime’, and in so doing make Alice Springs ‘safer’. In other words, Breaking the Cycle and approaches like it reinforce notions of racial difference by characterising crime as an Aboriginal problem. There was a strong suggestion that young Aboriginal people are inclined towards criminality, that they pose a risk to the community and that they need to be managed for this risk to be mitigated. Not only is this divisive, it is also dismissive of the complex reasons why children and youth spend time on the streets at night. What Breaking the Cycle’s promotional material failed to do was contextualise the actions of the young people, or give any consideration of why they might engage in street-walking in the first place. And the plan in a larger sense also failed to address these complex issues.

In this, it followed a multitude of NT-specific protocols introduced in the last three decades that have been applied disproportionately to the Aboriginal population.

The ‘paperless arrest laws’ introduced in 2014 are one example of such protocols. These allow police officers to take a person into custody if they believe they have committed or are about to commit an offence. In the seven months that followed their introduction, paperless arrest laws enabled the arrest of 1295 people, 80 per cent of whom were Aboriginal. Frequently, in Alice Springs, these laws are applied to Aboriginal people who are under the influence of alcohol. They are taken to the watch-house where they can be held for four hours, or until they are deemed to be sober. Prior to this, in 1997, Mandatory Sentencing Laws that were introduced through amendments to the Sentencing Act (1995) and the Juvenile Justice Act (1993) stipulated custodial sentences of a set length for certain offences. Almost all of the young people who have been incarcerated under these provisions are Aboriginal, and usually they have committed only minor property offences. Such laws have consistently lowered the threshold for incarceration, and work to criminalise disadvantaged young people.

In another example, the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response, or Intervention, introduced a range of measures, ostensibly to protect the welfare of Aboriginal children, which dehumanised and criminalised Aboriginal people . On a mission to ‘stabilise, normalise and exit’ Aboriginal communities, a suite of measures placed heavy restrictions on the lives of individuals, purportedly for their own good. This included the introduction of income management, which quarantined a proportion of welfare payments for essential items such as food and prohibited spending on alcohol and cigarettes. New laws prohibited pornography, gambling and the possession and drinking of alcohol and other substances in locations deemed ‘prescribed areas’, including all remote NT communities and town camps. Under these laws, which are still in place, those who reside in prescribed areas are unable to purchase alcohol unless they are able to provide evidence that they will be drinking it in another location. The measures also tied welfare payments to school attendance, meaning that Centrelink benefits were denied to the parents of children who were absent without an authorised reason.

The bans on alcohol and pornography were announced on signs the size of billboards, which were placed at entry points to Aboriginal communities for the five years of the Intervention. These served as a source of humiliation and stigma for Aboriginal people; as Elizabeth Povinelli observed, they publicly branded these communities as ‘spaces of perversion and decay’. Upon completion of the Intervention, the newly elected federal Labor government introduced the Stronger Futures program, which normalised the Intervention’s measures as enduring bipartisan policy. Such measures bear the ultimate goal, in the words of Michel Foucault, of ‘achieving the subjugation of bodies’ while purportedly being undertaken for the benefit of individuals. Under the terms of Stronger Futures, Aboriginal people continue to live with sustained experiences of daily humiliation as they present their BasicsCards to shopkeepers, another direct indicator of their perceived transgressions from societal norms. These normalising constraints have become part of the everyday; they have standardised public expectations of remote Aboriginal dysfunction and reinforce difference by signposting non-compliance.

In 2019, a weekly disco held on Saturday nights was funded as part of the Breaking the Cycle plan. The venue required young people to provide their names and addresses before entering, and throughout my fieldwork during 2019 it was staffed by Talice security guards, who used hand-held metal detectors to scan them as they entered. I was informed by both young people and professionals that the doors were locked during operating hours to prevent children from exiting the building and walking back into town. When the disco finished for the night, drop-offs to the suburbs and town camps were coordinated by staff, and police attended at this time. I was told by staff that their presence minimised unwanted behaviours on the part of young people and, critically, discouraged them from heading into the CBD.

Although I spoke with many young people and several youth workers and YOREOs about these security measures, I was never able to determine when they had been implemented, or whether it was in response to any particular incident. ‘They want to make sure you don’t have scissors and stuff. But they don’t get you to take off your socks, only your shoes. And so kids just put them in their socks’, a young woman told me one night. ‘I don’t go there anymore cos I think all the security is just dumb’. She was not alone; in fact several young people told me that the presence of security guards and metal detectors, along with not being allowed to go outside, made them feel uneasy and even unsafe. This led them to reconsider attending. The heightened security presence thus had the opposite of its intended effect, leading to a greater likelihood of street-walking. One young woman also told me that young people who had not been in much trouble with the police felt increasingly uncomfortable with these measures. After recounting a story about one of her friends smelling of cannabis, and describing her feeling of uneasiness given that there were security guards close by, she said that ‘[the only ones who] like that shit are the ones that already been locked up, the metal detectors and stuff. But we aren’t used to that. So it’s scary’.

Young people who attempted to exit the centre prior to closing time were redirected and told to ‘wait till drop-offs’. While such procedures are contrary to the very notion of a ‘drop-in’ centre, which by nature suggests an environment in which service users can come and go, they were part and parcel of Breaking the Cycle’s broader approach to policing youth. The disco’s location was less than two kilometres from the CBD, making it an easy departure point for a night of street-walking. Contextually, however, the restrictions make sense; as one youth worker stated cynically to me one evening, ‘Well of course they lock the doors. The whole idea is to keep them out of town. Otherwise, what’s the point of the disco?’

Under Breaking the Cycle, the role of YOREOs was further diversified. Although their role was primarily to engage youth, they were also tasked with supervising youths on suspended sentences, and making assessments around the suitability of bail arrangements. Moreover, in carrying out foot patrols YOREOs worked in tandem with police. Several professionals expressed concerns that the work of the Youth Outreach and Re-engagement Team (YORET) could increase the likelihood of criminal charges. For example, one youth coordinator I interviewed reported that at times young people were reluctant to identify themselves to YOREOs because they were in breach of their bail conditions—most often for not adhering to a curfew. This monitoring was likely to lead to the arrest of young people who were deemed to be breaching bail by being out after curfew. On one occasion, I observed a court matter where a fifteen-year-old defendant had been charged by police with breaching curfew—while waiting to be transported home from the disco at 10 pm. The child in question had subsequently spent the night in the police watch-house. His lawyer submitted that he had technically been in the custody of the YOREOs present at the disco, and that while he had been out in public one hour after his curfew, he was awaiting transport with every intention of going home. The police prosecutor, however, asserted that the YOREOs had not been aware of the young man’s bail conditions and that he was customarily arrested for breach of his curfew (which was at 9 pm) every six to eight weeks. The matter was found proven and recorded with no further action.

Several days later I attended a meeting of the Central Australian Youth Justice Committee, which is made up of professionals who advocate for the social and legal rights of children involved in the Youth Justice System. The meeting’s chairperson, a Legal Aid lawyer, stated that the committee aimed to ‘identify systemic issues that might otherwise be deemed to be one-offs, like for example of kids being picked up for breaching bail while they line up at the disco’.

Breaking the Cycle served to delegitimise young peoples’ occupation and use of public spaceby delivering closer monitoring by YORET, additional Talice security personnel and the CCTV cameras whose very presence the initiative grants. Furthermore, it subtly enlisted community members to observe, be wary of and report young people whose movements it brought to their attention. With their very presence in the town centre rebranded as ‘anti-social’, there was nothing to distinguish between actions that are harmless (hanging out with peers in town) and those that are objectively problematic, such as engaging in harassment, theft or vandalism. Subsequently, Aboriginal youth in general were deemed in need of the increased security and surveillance of Breaking the Cycle.

It is important to remember that this surveillance is not unique to youth, but an experience that traverses generations of Aboriginal people in Alice Springs. The same racialised undercurrents of policing and surveillance permeate other aspects of Aboriginal life, and the governmental ordering of social worlds. The sections of town where Aboriginal adults walk and spend time with kin and peers, such as the major shopping centres and the Todd River bed, are equally subject to high levels of surveillance and monitoring by authorities. A young woman, Clara, described to me a recent situation in a local supermarket when an elderly Aboriginal woman had ‘stopped [as she entered] to show the security guard that she had money. Like she felt that she had to prove she had a right to be there. And I thought she shouldn’t have to do that’. Clara’s observation was astute: the need to prove one’s right to access public-commercial space can be traced back to the establishment of Alice Springs as a ‘prohibition zone’. The increased mobility of people between remote communities and Alice Springs as a result of the Intervention has amplified the active policing and diversion of Aboriginal people from the centre of town. In 2011, for example, an accommodation facility known as the Visitor Park was constructed as part of the Commonwealth government’s Transformation Plan, to house the frequent visitors from remote communities. Unsurprisingly, it sits on the outskirts of town, ghettoising those who live transient, precarious lives away from the areas in which tourists and private property owners spend time. Consequently, Aboriginal people who pass in and out are in a state of non-belonging.

This precarity is historically placed; after all, the same streets young people are currently diverted from by police and other professionals were once areas that their kin required permits to enter. The fact that street-walking persists despite ongoing and significant efforts on the parts of the local community and government to prevent it speaks not only to the issues that young people invariably face in their day-to-day lives, but to their sheer determination to occupy town space. By being physically present in the town centre and evading the authorities that demand their submission, Aboriginal youth seem to be practising a subtle form of ‘passive noncompliance’. Writer Nicolas Rothwell has described Aboriginal people as pursuing a ‘mingled strategy of noncompliance and resistance to outside authority’, and claims that the invariable failure of policies directed at Aboriginal Australians is the inevitable outcome of approaches that assume an agenda of cultural domination. Even policies that force compliance, such as conditional welfare, are subject to non-compliance, with ‘more than 30,000 young Aboriginal men from remote areas hav[ing] forgone their benefits and refused to submit themselves to the job search discipline of Centrelink’. Even smoking, drinking and not following the advice of health professionals can be understood as forms of passive resistance to White authority, albeit in circumstances where options to resist are limited.

By street-walking, young people are defying attempts to restrict their use of space and disrupting governmental approaches such as Breaking the Cycle. This is not to say that the violence and chaos perpetrated by young people in the community emerges solely from their non-compliance with oppressive regimes. However, young people’s evasion of authorities and their physical presence in groups on the streets of town is contextualised by their defiance of these regimes, and this defiance is often a precursor to the kind of violence and chaos that has saturated media forums over the last months. The youth of Alice Springs’s Aboriginal community are well-accustomed to interventions that aim to correct their actions and those of their kin. They are not only the targets of current initiatives that aim to divert them onto a ‘better path’; they are also the subjects of longer, lagging governmental interventions that seek to ‘stabilise’ their communities. Furthermore, the town camps of Alice Springs from which many street-walkers hail are subject to high rates of family violence and alcohol-facilitated conflict. This reality, along with poverty, food scarcity and overcrowding, serves as a causal factor in why young people might be inclined to roam the streets at night. Government approaches that frame young street-walkers as ‘anti-social’ individuals who have followed the wrong ‘path’ are inherently divisive and unlikely to promote any sense of empathy for the young people they target. The promotional material that accompanied Breaking the Cycle may thus have further contributed to the very disadvantage it claimed it was seeking to alleviate.

Acknowledgements: Erica Franey and Micky, Julie, Clifford, Charmaine, and Michael Woodford; Vera, Frank, Lucky-Luke and Bradley Curtis; Valerie Curtis, Craig and Corey McDowell; Paula Perkins and Paula Lawton; Jennifer, Richard, and Jethro Forbes; Karen, Shane, and Shane-Shane Franey; Audrey McCormick, Daryl and Darelle Taylor; Noeline Minarri and family; Julie Coultarde and family; Mervyn Franey and Diane Curtis and Russell and Brian Franey. Note: this is the right way of listing these people, with their multiple names.

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About the author

Lora Chapman

Lora is a writer and practicing social worker. She holds a PhD in anthropology and is passionate about social issues that impact children and young people.

More articles by Lora Chapman

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