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As Australia sees Dylan Voller’s face for the first time, the deeper questions of the royal commission are only beginning. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Dylan Voller: ‘The problem is the justice system itself’

Dylan Voller delivers his statement at the royal commission this week.
Credit: Royal Commission

The first time Australia saw Dylan Voller he was hooded and restrained, subject to a practice already known about but which required startling images to jolt the nation’s attention. Voller was a teenage detainee at the Don Dale correctional facility, and one of the subjects of a Four Corners investigation that alleged the boys had been subject to gross mistreatment – beaten, starved, tear-gassed and strip-searched. 

We saw Dylan Voller again this week, now 19 and serving a sentence for the reckless endangerment of a police officer. He is fulfilling that sentence in an adult prison. With cropped hair, suit and tie, Voller was addressing the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, which was established in the wake of the Four Corners report. He has become a national symbol, but there is no consensus about just what he symbolises.

Composed, Voller read his handwritten statement: “I wanted to use this opportunity to tell the public and the commissioners here today: the problem is not only youth justice and Don Dale but adult prison and the justice system itself. One of the biggest problems we face is the fact that we are being further punished whilst in prison. Being sentenced by the judge to do our time for our crime is our punishment, not the continued mental and physical abuse we continue to cop while we’re here.

“As a victim and a young man I feel upset and let down by the system that these bad things were allowed to go on for so long and I really want to see things change… Young people need love and someone to talk to and not be locked in a cell with nothing for days on end. Trust me.”

The gallery burst into applause. Before, under questioning, Voller said he had witnessed racist abuse from guards and been denied food and access to the toilet, forcing him to defecate into his pillowcase. But the next morning on Darwin’s ABC Radio talkback, there was little sympathy for Voller – not from a town experiencing a crime rise.

“I hope the testimony and statements of the Don Dale guards and officers who have had to deal with Voller over the years is given as much airtime,” said one caller. “It’s been awfully one-sided so far.”

And another: “Has anyone bothered to ask why he was in a spit hood?”

Voller’s background

Born in Adelaide, the middle child of five, Dylan Voller moved with his mother to Alice Springs when he was seven. That’s when the trouble really started. Expelled from five schools in quick succession, Voller was 11 when he first spent time in detention. He entered the system in a territory that detains its children at five times the rate of most states, and in a country where Indigenous youths are detained at 26 times the rate of their non-Indigenous counterparts. Voller is an Indigenous Australian.

The year before his first detention, Voller had been diagnosed with ADHD – a condition for which he rarely took medication – and following his first spell inside he was placed in a group home. Between 2009 and 2014, Voller committed as many as 50 crimes, ranging from assault, drug possession and an attempt to run down a police officer with a car. By now, he was using methamphetamine.

“I was shocked to see Voller dressed in a suit and looking angelic as he gave evidence,” a former Northern Territory federal MP, Natasha Griggs, wrote on her Facebook page. “Stop making this guy a martyr!”

Of course, what you might find shocking from Voller’s case varies dramatically from person to person – his personal appearance when in the courtroom seemed the least of it. Voller’s former youth justice advocate, Antoinette Carroll, gave lengthy evidence in this week’s hearings, and said that Voller had been “set up to fail” by a system that was grimly punitive and adversarial. “We’ve travelled this journey together,” she told the commission, “and I still find him incredibly inspirational.”

Carroll said that the youth justice system was systemically flawed – inflexible and brutalising. “The whole point,” she said, “is to ensure that a young person isn’t re-entering the community a hardened criminal and then committing more crime.” She gave evidence that Voller had not been offered diversionary options when he was first incarcerated for minor breaches, and once inside was not properly educated or attended to therapeutically. The sum of her evidence was of a sort of vortex – once inside it, Voller would be sucked aggressively downwards, his defiance of his detention ensuring his captivity to it. 

“A self-fulfilling prophecy”

When the Four Corners story aired in July, I spoke with Dylan Voller’s lawyer and a range of others working in the Northern Territory’s youth justice system. A constant refrain was that a climate of intemperate political rhetoric was being reflected in an increasingly punitive system. There is a strong belief that the NT’s politicians had gone too far in satisfying its electorate’s desire for punitive justice. Boundaries were crossed.

It is right for criminal law to reflect social expectations – the law is there as protection, redress and an affirmation of our civility. But there is a terrible flaw in this assumption when the law itself may encourage the state to commit violence against minors. “Demonisation is part of the political process that results in more punitive laws and conduct,” Russell Goldflam, the principal legal officer at the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, said this week. “The children themselves – a lot of this must trickle down to them. I’ve seen many children in court and there’s a lot of shame, being paraded through the court foyer in Alice Springs in handcuffs. It’s a humiliating experience. That sort of shaming is compounded when they see on TV some politician talking about them in [derogatory terms]. It has a corrosive effect on their self-esteem… and is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Goldflam was thoughtful in his evidence, and respected the fact that detention was necessary – he wasn’t calling for the abolition of the system, merely its reform. “I’ve acted for children who have committed murder and rape and when they’re serious offences they deserve to be punished … I don’t think they should be seldom detained … the justice system is required to deal with them.”

It is whether the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and others in the Northern Territory have dealt with them appropriately within their powers, and whether their punitive powers are excessive, that the royal commission is sitting to consider. Voller’s testimony was not presented to persuade us of his innocence, or degree of culpability for his actions, or his rehabilitation. It is to attest to his treatment at the hands of the NT corrections officers, along with the testimony of fellow juvenile detainees.

How we respond to young criminals

I wrote at length about a young killer for a book, a 19-year-old man who strangled a young woman in a suburban park. They had met only hours before. The killer was immature, inarticulate, quick to violence and braggadocio. After the killing, he stripped his victim.

It was a nauseating act, egregious and wickedly destructive for the victim’s family. Words cannot adequately convey their horror. My unflattering portrayal of the killer was met with no criticism, though there was abundant opportunity for it to be offered as I travelled the country speaking to audiences and journalists for the book’s promotion.
I formed the impression that there was probably no condemnation I could have written of him – however venomous or simplistic – that would be challenged, so certain were readers of my thesis that the killer represented an abject masculinity.

Progressives who were rightly appalled at violence against women – and a culture they believed helped foment it – came to resemble the parts of the electorate they professed to loathe: those who demanded longer sentences and the assumption of personal responsibility. Their punitive instincts – which I’m convinced lie within all of us – were animated by this issue and little tolerance was shown to those who suggested contributing factors other than “rape culture”. The reception to Dylan Voller is the opposite.

Dylan Voller is not a killer. He is not a suburban white kid from the northern suburbs of Perth. He is an Indigenous teenager from the northern parts of the country, and the torturous treatment he has received, he received as a minor. I’m not comparing Voller’s crimes to this other young man, but asking you to consider your response to him. In what circumstances do we make appeals to personal responsibility? And when to abstractions such as “culture” and “systems”? Are these appeals consistent, or capricious?

A royal commission is a formal process of adducing and challenging evidence. It should not be an opportunity for lawyers to sermonise, as was the case on Wednesday when the commissioner repeatedly halted the ostensible questions of barrister John Lawrence – sincere and eloquent though he was. “You are using this as a platform,” Commissioner Margaret White told him. “Please endeavour to be more focused.”

Similarly, the applause for Dylan Voller was prejudicial to the guards who are yet to give evidence. Voller’s evidence is expected to be challenged by the state, though Voller himself will not be cross-examined. The applause reminded me of the standing ovation offered to David Hicks when he took the stage for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Hicks was subject to hellish and illegal detention. He was also a vile and bigoted aspirant to terrorism. To rightly despise his treatment somehow turned into admiration for the man – the ghastliness of indefinite detention moulded into martyrdom, as if someone who has been subject to injustice is incapable themselves of gross transgressions. 

Voller has beaten victims into unconsciousness. He has tried to run down a police officer. The state will allege at least 100 examples of spitting at detention officers, caseworkers and nurses. He has also been stripped, beaten and held in solitary containment. His supporters suggest a boy innocent and suggestible until he entered a brutal – and brutalising – system. They are right. While the applause troubled me, it is less troubling than the insistence upon personal responsibility that is so implacable it would support the torture of children. It must again be noted that while Voller’s evidence should rightly be challenged, he is not on trial. It is the youth justice system being examined here, even if Voller himself has become the public’s cognitive handle for that system.

But if we accept cultural or institutional influence in Voller’s offending, why is this not applied so generously elsewhere? The allegations – and evidence – raised by Four Corners are sufficiently grave to warrant a sober examination of the evidence. But everywhere is performative ideology – mixed, certainly, with legitimate advocacy.

It is an extraordinary position in which Dylan Voller finds himself – a cipher for the country’s competing ideas about justice. His lawyer, Peter O’Brien, has lodged an appeal for his client’s early release from prison, arguing that the judge had not considered the mistreatment of Voller when sentencing him. Meanwhile, the commission – appreciating the mountains of evidence still to be considered – requested a five-month extension, so that it could deliver its report in August next year, rather than the end of March. It expects to hear from more “vulnerable witnesses” when it resumes in 2017.

Dylan Voller will be with us all for some time to come, as will the system that is now on trial.

Correction: This story was modified on December 23, 2016, to make clear that Dylan Voller's sentence is for the reckless endangerment of a police officer. The article also said that Voller was the first to give evidence; he was not. Finally, the applause Voller received was generated by his supporters – the gallery was otherwise closed to the public. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "‘The problem is the justice system itself’". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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