Is youth detention doing the community any good?

Our lawyers appear regularly for Children charged with criminal offences. Recent focus on Youth Detention is therefore something which is very relevant to our practice.

There has been a lot of media attention given to the recently released report of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. The Royal Commission found that the detention centres visited were not fit for accommodating children and young people, and that whilst in those centres, children were subjected to violent restraint, verbal abuse and humiliation and damaging practices of isolation.

The Commission doesn’t recommend that anybody be held accountable for the atrocious management of the Youth Detention and Protection systems, or as I understand it, that any of the Youth Justice Officers responsible for assaulting the children be investigated by police. Nor does it recommend the creation of a new criminal charge specific to mistreatment of detained children

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    The Commission does recommend that the Government engage in a ‘paradigm shift’ in youth justice, which would see far more diversionary and therapeutic approaches employed.

    Less has been said about the very recent review into the Youth Justice system in Victoria. The Youth Justice Review and Strategy Paper: meeting needs and reducing offending, was published in October 2017.

    One piece of information from the Paper shocked me. The number of kids sentenced in the Children’s Court reduced from 2010 -2015 by pretty close to 50%.

    With the amount of media attention devoted to young people committing crime in Victoria over the last couple of years, this figure is an absolute eye opener and one that no one, especially people with no actual interaction with the legal system, would expect.

    Further, the report reiterates that there is absolutely no evidence that shows that detaining young people reduces the likelihood that they will reoffend once they are released. The report states that the rate of recidivism is highest among children and young people who have been subject to a sentence of detention (80%).

    Programs to assist rehabilitation and reduce reoffending for children are extremely rare, or rarely used. In 2016 an organization called YHaRS were contracted to deliver these programs in custody. One program, called the Adolescent Violent Intervention Program had no participants in 2016, despite a large number of detained young people being charged with violence related offending.

    The review found that not one single element of the operating model employed in youth custodial settings was operating at an optimal level.

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    The report also found that the youth justice system in Victoria fails to involve or be informed by experts in relevant areas of academia or research. This means that the system does not have the expert input needed to develop new, effective, evidence based strategies to assist the young people it effects. In turn, this means that the system is not in the best position to enhance community safety.

    Only one quarter of the money spent on Youth Justice is spent on community based supervisory programs, and a staggeringly low three per cent on the Diversion Program and the restorative justice Group Conferencing Program.

    The incidents at Parkville and Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre in early 2017 are properly characterized in the report as a result of a badly managed system. Those incidents would undoubtedly have been very stressful for the Youth Justice Workers present, and many detained children. However the Youth Justice Review and Strategy paper makes it extremely clear that those incidents occurred in the context of a system which was utterly failing the children it was supposed to be rehabilitating and, in turn, the community.

    We hope the government adopts the recommendations made in the review, and that the Victorian Review and the Royal Commission are utilized by state Government’s to make significant and lasting changes to the way that Youth Justice is approached.

    Lessons could be learned from the Jesuit Social Services recent survey of youth detention in some jurisdictions in Europe and the US. This was explored in Radio National’s Law Report a few weeks ago, and the blogs from the trip can be read on the Jesuit Social Services Website.

    The innovative, evidence based models of youth detention visited by JSS illustrated ways of approaching youth detention which are so different from the Victorian experience. In Missouri, after coming to the conclusion that punitive detention models are expensive and ineffective, youth detention is now characterized by open spaces, excellent recreational facilities and very few locked doors. In Spain JSS found facilities with a focus on increasing the independence of young people and preparing them for their release back into the community. There was an emphasis on teaching the children important life skills through involving them in the everyday cooking and cleaning of the areas in which they were detained.

    JSS found that the very positive and strong relationships built between the detainees and staff were paramount in allowing the environments to be less physically secure. That is, those relationships made the environments safer without the need for so many locked doors. In Norway they found that staff must have a two year qualification, and that all staff are trained in areas like human rights, ethics, culture and child development.

    In Victoria, 80 per cent of young people who are sentenced to a term of detention reoffend. This figure begs the question: what on earth is the purpose of detaining them in the first place? Separating children from their families, their schooling and other protective factors should be an absolute last resort. When it does happen, the environment they enter must be one which does not have a criminogenic effect. At the moment, with the recidivism rate as it is, with high staff turnover and the frequent use of agency staff who are unknown to the children, with inadequate staff training and no clear philosophy underpinning the Youth Justice system the detention of young people has no community value. 

    CONTACT US TODAY if you or your child has a criminal matter in the Children’s court.

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