Children were subjected to "regular, repeated and distressing treatment" in the Don Dale Youth Justice Centre in the Northern Territory, and it should be shut down, the NT Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children has said.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the commission after ABC's Four Corners program aired disturbing footage from inside the detention centre last year.
The footage included teenage boys in the centre being tear-gassed and being held in restraints, with a spit-hood over the head of one of the detainees, Dylan Voller.
The $54 million inquiry into youth justice in the territory, chaired by commissioners Margaret White and Mick Gooda, found that "shocking and systemic failures occurred" in youth justice over many years "and were known and ignored at the highest levels".
Don Dale failed to comply with basic binding human rights standards in the treatment of children and young people, the commission found, and children were denied water and food, verbally abused, denied the use of toilets, and were isolated as punishment, in violation of the Youth Justice Act.
The commission found that the centres assessed during the inquiry were not fit for accommodating or rehabilitating young offenders.
"These things happened on our watch, in our country, to our children," the commissioner said in a statement.
"Only fundamental change and decisive action will break the seemingly inevitable cycle we have found of many children in care continuing to progress into the youth justice system and detention. Perpetuating a failed system that hardens young people, does not reduce reoffending and fails to rehabilitate young lives and set them on a new course, is a step backwards.
"The failures we have identified have cost children and families greatly, they have not made communities safer and they are shocking."
The commission has recommended shutting the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and High Security Unit, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12, and only allowing children under the age of 14 to be detained for serious crimes.
Tear gas, restraint chairs and spithoods should be prohibited, the commission recommended, and force or restraint should not be used to maintain "good order" in the detention centres.
Youth offenders should also only be transferred to adult prisons with the approval of a judge.
Indigenous Australians are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system in the Northern Territory, with the report stating that 94% of children and young people in detention in the Northern Territory and 89% of children and young people in out of home care are indigenous.
The report recommended that the role of the Aboriginal community police officer should be expanded to include a youth diversion officer, and the NT government should work with Aboriginal organisations to increase the number of Aboriginal foster and kinship carers.
The former justice minister who was responsible for the detention centre at the time of the incidents revealed in the Four Corners report, John Elfrink, has said that Don Dale could not be shut down because the detainees would have no where to go.
The commissioners noted that if the NT government failed to implement its recommendations, the cost alone would be unsustainable for the territory, with a Deloitte Access Economics report stating detention costs would rise from $37.3 million in the last financial year up to $113.4 million in 2026-2027.
NT chief minister Michael Gunner said in a speech on Friday that the report "will live as a stain on the Northern Territory reputation".
"For this I am sorry. But more than this I’m sorry for the stories that live in the children we failed," he said.
"Because our youth justice and child protection systems are supposed to make our kids better, not break them."
Gunner said that the report needed to be considered in detail before the NT government made any announcements about implementing the recommendations.
He pointed to the NT government already overhauling youth justice, and added that implementing the report's recommendations would need the "full support and partnership" of the federal government.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull noted that most of the recommendations were for the NT government, but said the federal government would consider the recommendations with a federal impact.
Josh Taylor is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at email@example.com.
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