In light of recent riots at Kariong’s Frank Baxter Centre, ABC’s The Drum discussed the limitations of Australia’s approach to youth detention. It was a nuanced, intelligent conversation that confronted the tough reality of our juvenile justice system and how it is failing young people.
We’ve compiled some takeaways from the 20-minute segment below, and recommend you watch it in full here.
It started with some compelling statistics that will be familiar to anyone working with at-risk youth. We have just under 1000 young people in detention every day. Over 60% of detainees are still awaiting sentencing; locked up for months before they are ever convicted of a crime. Out of these 1000 young people, Indigenous youth are grossly overrepresented in our juvenile justice system. Despite making up 5% of the youth population, they make up 50% of detainees.
Rather than viewing events like the Baxter riots as isolated incidents, we must see them as symptomatic of a society where young people are becoming institutionalised at increasingly young ages. As Tim Soutphommasane pointed out, this comes down to the age where we attribute criminal responsibility. In Australia, this can be as young as age 10, whereas many other countries nominate age 14. This gap is significant, with potentially devastating consequences.
By introducing young offenders to the criminal justice system at these incredibly early age, we are, ironically, increasing the likelihood that these young people will repeat-offend. Add to this that most detainees are yet to even receive a sentence, and you can see how they can be ticking time bombs; filled with anxiety, frustration and boredom and isolated from family, community and country.
Jonathon Hunyor explains these counter-productive outcomes by acknowledging that many young detainees are victims of trauma. They have been victims of crime themselves and in the child protection system, with poor educational outcomes and high levels of disability, mental health and cognitive impairment. This becomes more significant when we place these young people in the traumatic environment of detention.
In many ways, this creates a perfect storm. It also highlights an inconvenient truth; when we place traumatised youth in a traumatising situation, there is no scenario where they emerge from that environment better than they entered it. Detention does not offer us the outcome of genuine rehabilitation, or a safer, more cohesive society. This means that when we ‘pull the trigger’ and place a young person in detention, it must be as a last resort, because we are effectively engineering a ‘point of no return’.
There is a growing call for community-led and evidence-based solutions that balance public safety with not only the human rights of a child, but the reality of their neuro-development. The concept of self-responsibility is a central tenant of our society, but we must understand that incarcerating a 10-year-old does not mean we accelerate their cognitive ability to bear this responsibility. As Jonathon summarised so succinctly “Treating young people as mini adults just doesn’t work.”
It’s clear that we need to move beyond our knee-jerk reaction to conflicts like the Baxter riots; that is, expecting increased security to fix what is ultimately a much more systemic issue. Over-reliance on lock-downs and overuse of strip-searches and hand-cuffs are counterproductive measures that not only fail to improve behaviour or increase safety during a sentence, but can exacerbate or incite violence while in detention.
So, what are our alternatives? It’s clear that we need to be focused on prevention, and in the case of first-time detainees, limiting the likelihood of re-offences. This argument has a compelling economic dimension as well. Incarcerating a young person costs between $200 -250, 000 a year. When research continually shows that youth detention does not achieve rehabilitation, governments must be asking themselves how those funds could be far better distributed to organisations and initiatives that catch young people before they fall through the cracks and into our justice system.
One solution offered in the segment which aligns with our ethos at NG Central, focused on engaging at-risk youth in meaningful education and skill development activities. Alternative education that offers wrap-around support which extends to a young person’s life outside the classroom is crucial. Issues of housing instability and homelessness, family violence, substance abuse, physical and mental health, and disability not only an impact a young person’s likelihood to commit a crime, but the efficacy of their rehabilitation.
Speaking for Indigenous youth particularly, Gary Oliver calls for locally-led solutions and a refreshed Close The Gap strategy that incorporates juvenile justice targets, as well as related issues of domestic violence and homelessness. He also ventured possibilities like more bail hostels run by Indigenous Australians and alternative, justice reinvestment models where young people can be rehabilitated on country, without risking further disengagement from their community.
This is a very complex issue and answers are not clear-cut. But one thing is certain - our current system is broken. This segment is a great example of how our national conversation needs to evolve towards new and culturally affirmative solutions.