20/11/2017 8:13 AM AEDT | Updated 20/11/2017 8:22 AM AEDT

The Way To Stop Children Being Abused In Detention Centres Is To Keep Them Out Of There

Youth justice doesn't start in prison.

This photo of Dylan Voller sparked the royal commission.

If we never want to see another child hooded and strapped to a chair, the solution doesn't start in prison. The most important way to stop children being abused in youth detention facilities is to keep vulnerable young people out of prison.

Young people's problems don't start when they are incarcerated. The path is set long before a young person sees the inside of a youth detention centre. Research shows that children who have been abused or neglected are more likely to commit a crime. Young people in the child protection system are 12 times as likely as other children to end up in the youth justice system.

It's our responsibly to care for vulnerable children. The good news is that if we do, we can also prevent serious crimes from being committed -- keeping us all safer.

Children need nurturing and care, not a prison cell. We need to be with them through every hurdle. It starts with strengthening families that are struggling and providing early intervention. Even for those who do end up in trouble we need to divert them away from prison and provide better support for young people who have committed crimes so that they can turn their lives around.

If we're going to spend $3.8 billion a year nationally on prisons, wouldn't it be wiser to spend more of it on preventing crime, rather than dealing with it after the fact?

The Royal Commission into Child Protection and Detention in the Northern Territory has received submissions showing that these solutions already exist. Many programs and approaches around the country are making a difference in steering troubled young lives away from crime and back towards their communities.

Sometimes this is as simple as a safe place to be. In Darwin, the Red Cross SHAK is a drop-in centre that gives kids from all backgrounds a place to play, learn rest and access counselling services.

Other times, it's about kids discovering their true potential. In Broome, teenagers identified by police as in need of support but not engaged with other services, have joined the Young Warriors program -- a collaboration of four community groups including Red Cross. The boys now regularly get out of town and reconnect on country. Many of these boys now see the role they can play in supporting their friends, and are working towards a safer, crime-free future.

It's not just early intervention that can make a difference. Young people who end up in trouble need the right support to get them on track, not simply a punitive approach that leads to more damage and abuse. This means more options for young people who commit crimes to attend problem-solving courts or take part in restorative justice programs.

This approach holds offenders accountable and can include victims in the process, while also looking at the issues that led to the offending in the first place. Young people who can successfully complete programs have a better chance of moving on with their lives.

We also need to give young people who are who have been in contact with the justice system need support that will give them a better chance of desisting from crime. The Red Cross Step Out program in South Australia works with young who have been in youth detention or supervision to help them set positive goals and develop purpose in their lives.

According to local police, nine out of 10 of the young people involved in the program would be institutionalised without the support of the Step Out peer mentors.

Many of the young people we deal with are at the beginning of what has the potential to be a lifetime of crime and imprisonment but with support and enormous personal effort they are re-engaging in education, work and volunteering. When we support vulnerable young people we don't just help them; we help the people who could fall victim to their crimes.

If we're going to spend $3.8 billion a year nationally on prisons, wouldn't it be wiser to spend more of it on preventing crime, rather than dealing with it after the fact?

We need to heed the recommendations of the Royal Commission, not only to prevent another Don Dale-type scandal but to stop more crimes from being committed, because we all deserve to be safe.

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