Keeping kids out of prison


Protecting and nurturing our young people is a crucial part of building resilient communities. When they end up in custody, it is often a sign we have failed. Commissioner for Children and Young People LIANA BUCHANAN outlines how investing in communities and tackling disadvantage are the paths we need to take.

Until recently, it seemed the arguments against taking a punitive, ‘tough on crime’ approach to children and young people who offend were broadly understood in our community.

However, we are now in the middle of a steady, unrelenting media focus on youth crime. Newspapers tell us we are facing an unprecedented threat to community safety – that ‘child thugs’, ‘teen misfits’ and ‘youth gangs’ are responsible for a ‘youth crime wave’. Much of this reporting places a clear and persistent focus on the racial profile of young people, inciting fear and stoking prejudice.

Media commentators point to simplistic solutions, demanding a ‘zero tolerance’ approach of locking up culprits and letting the rest of us get on with our lives, supposedly feeling safer. Some commentators call for an end to differential treatment for children.

There can be no doubt that this media focus influences decision makers. After recent incidents at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre, where a group of young people were allowed to cause considerable damage, the Victorian government has taken the unprecedented step of designating a section of a high-security adult prison as a youth justice facility. While moving some children is at least in part a response to limited bed capacity in youth justice facilities, public messages about the move suggest it is intended as a punishment to children involved in the disturbance. Meanwhile, the opposition is calling for amendments to laws that will make it easier to transfer young offenders to adult prisons.

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Locking kids up makes them more likely to reoffend and commit more serious offences, potentially condemning them to a lifetime of crime.

The evidence tells us that being ‘tough on crime’ simply doesn’t work—especially for children and young people. Instead, locking kids up makes them more likely to reoffend and commit more serious offences, potentially condemning them to a lifetime of crime. Violent offending by children must be taken seriously, but a punitive approach doesn’t make the community safer. Over the long term, the opposite is true.

It is important to keep claims of a youth crime wave in perspective.

While police have identified a pattern of serious offending by a very small cohort of children and young people—a pattern we must understand and address—youth offending is otherwise in decline.

Compared to five years ago, there has been about a 30 per cent drop in the number of children and young people under 18 engaging in crime.

The actual number of offences committed has not increased significantly, particularly if allowing for the creation of new breach bail offences in 2013.

It is a small and highly disadvantaged group of young people that offends at a disproportionate rate. If as a community we are serious about preventing children and young people offending, we need to examine the root causes.

It is no coincidence that two-thirds of children in custody first come into contact with authorities through the child protection system—which means they themselves are victims of physical, sexual or mental abuse and neglect. One third face mental health problems, often a manifestation of childhood trauma. One fifth have impaired intellectual functioning.

Aboriginal children are 12 times more likely to be in custody than non-Aboriginal children. Quite simply, our youth justice centres house some of the most traumatised and disadvantaged children in our society.

It is often easier to demonise or simply forget these children, rather than acknowledge the collective failings that contribute to their harm.

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Quite simply, our youth justice centres house some of the most traumatised and disadvantaged children in our society.

These facts tell us the pathways to a safer community sit beyond the youth justice system. Youth justice is needed when children have offended, but we must make sure it maximises genuine rehabilitation. We must divert children from the criminal justice system whenever possible, and make sure each and every contact a child has with police or the courts becomes an opportunity to break the cycle of offending. If a child must be held in custody, we have a duty to apply sophisticated, evidence-based interventions to stop reoffending and provide seamless care that supports their rehabilitation once they leave custody.

But the true long-term solutions to youth crime are found far earlier in a child’s life. We shouldn’t wait for a child’s offending behaviour to manifest, when we already have such a clear picture of the risk factors that drive it. The solutions lie in better services for children and families when a child is first identified as being at risk of harm within the home.

They lie in better access to universal services, and in efforts to stop troubled children from being allowed or encouraged to drop out of school.

They lie in better supports for parents with drug and alcohol issues, and a more proactive and comprehensive response to family violence. They lie in strong, community-based programs to build social cohesion, especially among communities suffering discrimination and exclusion, and where young people feel the only path to success and belonging is through crime.

The solutions lie in tackling intergenerational disadvantage and violence.

Of course, none of this is easy.

These solutions take time and they take sustained, long-term investment.

There’s no quick fix and few enticing headlines. It is hard for any government to withstand a weekly onslaught of media calling for tough action. It is hard to avoid implementing measures that run well as a news grab, making some of the community feel momentarily better, while compounding the risk factors that undermine its safety.

‘Justice reinvestment’ exposes the economic, as well as human cost of favouring purely punitive responses over prevention and intervention strategies. It encourages investment in initiatives that prevent offending, or stop it in its tracks at the earliest opportunity. It pays for itself by reaping downstream savings when those children avoid a lifetime of imprisonment. It draws our attention to the dire consequences of unquestioningly implementing a ‘tough on crime’ approach. In the United States, in recent years justice reinvestment has become a bipartisan solution to the economic and social crisis of mass incarceration.

It is important to resist the temptation of short-term, reactive measures to address longstanding social problems. Across government, the not-for-profit sector, media and the wider community, we need to focus on the facts about what works to make communities safer, and on the duty we owe to the children who offend as a result of our failure to protect them from trauma.



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