The Northern Territory parliament has approved legislation that could revolutionise the criminal justice system for First Nations offenders. 

The Sentencing Legislation Amendment Bill, which sailed through parliament this week, sets the stage for Aboriginal elders and leaders to have a significant say in determining the sentences for their community members who find themselves entangled in the legal system.

This development heralds the return of Community Courts. 

The courts have been a vital component of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal Justice Agreement, an ambitious initiative aimed at rectifying the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the territory's prisons and curbing recidivism rates. 

Currently, Aboriginal people constitute approximately 85 percent of the Northern Territory's prison population.

Community Courts were initially established in the Northern Territory in 2003 but were disbanded in 2012 due to potential inconsistencies in the existing sentencing legislation. 

However, with the recent amendment of the legislation, the path has been paved for their resurrection.

Under the Community Court system, Aboriginal offenders will have the opportunity to request to be sentenced within an Aboriginal community of their choice, where the court will duly consider their deep-rooted connection to the place. 

This reinvigorated process will empower local elders and leaders, collectively known as the “Law and Justice Group” within the community, to offer guidance to the presiding judge in determining a fitting sentence for each individual.

Attorney-General Chansey Paech has emphasised the significance of community courts, saying; “Community courts support local community involvement and Aboriginal leadership by holding offenders accountable for their behaviour and helping them understand the impacts of their behaviour”.

This move seeks to foster a sense of ownership, responsibility, and cultural understanding among First Nations offenders, potentially leading to more effective rehabilitation outcomes.

The community court system will operate alongside the existing local and youth courts in the Northern Territory, rather than as an entirely new institution. 

Applying for a community court hearing will be available to both adult and juvenile offenders within the jurisdiction of the Northern Territory's lower local court. 

However, it is essential that applicants plead guilty and reach an agreement with the prosecution regarding the factual basis of their offences. 

Additionally, the court reserves the right to reject an application for a community court hearing, stipulating that offenders can only be sentenced in a community where a Law and Justice Group exists.

The unanimously passed bill now formally enshrines the community court system in law, detailing the role and responsibilities of the Law and Justice Group. This includes providing information and advice to the court through an “Aboriginal experience report”, which can be delivered orally, in writing, or via video. 

A Law and Justice Group has been set up on Groote Eylandt, and the wheels are already in motion to form additional groups in Maningrida in north-west Arnhem Land and Kintore in Central Australia, as outlined in the 2021-22 Aboriginal Justice Agreement report. 

As part of the Northern Territory's budget announcement this week, an allocation of $15 million has been dedicated to implementing the Aboriginal Justice Agreement commitments, including the establishment of Law and Justice Groups and Community Courts in six communities over the next two years.