A call for innovative responses to youth justice

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By Stan Winford, Principal Coordinator, Legal Programs

The history of youth justice in Australia over the last 200 years or so is characterised by the failure of punitive detention to impact on recidivism or to address at an individual or systemic level the underlying issues which have propelled many young people into the justice system and into custody. Across Australia, youth detention facilities house a disproportionate number of detainees with mental health issues and cognitive impairments, limited educational attainment, and histories of abuse, trauma and victimisation. Detention facilities have effectively become warehouses for vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, failing to effectively support education and rehabilitation, instead engendering criminogenic relationships and behaviour.

Aboriginal people have been more exposed to this failure than any other group, and are devastatingly over-represented in the youth justice system, particularly in the Northern Territory. Not enough has been done by successive governments to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Aboriginal people represent approximately 30% of the population of the Northern Territory, but 96% of children and young people in detention in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal.

Jurisprudence, criminology and behavioural science all tell us that children and young people have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults. Yet the evidence shows that detention facilities provide an education in crime, and children who have been detained are more likely to re-offend in future. Detention is also the most costly form of responding to youth offending. Last year, governments across Australia spent $698 million on youth justice, and most of it (62.8 per cent, or $438 million) was spent on detention rather than community based responses. Detaining children and young people in closed environments is inherently unsafe. In the last five years, there have been investigations into youth detention facilities in almost every Australian state and territory. Violence and the use of excessive force appear to be endemic.

The documented backgrounds of children and young people in detention include very high rates of family violence, parental drug and alcohol abuse and contact with child protection systems. Rather than addressing this deep-seated trauma, however, youth detention exacerbates it by imposing additional trauma in the form of an uncompromising and authoritarian environment where violence – from other detainees and from authorities – is a constant threat.

If these costly facilities are not reducing re-offending and are harming young people, the question must be asked: why do we persist with this approach? Can we respond to trauma with trauma informed practices that address the underlying issues rather than their symptoms? Are there innovative alternatives?

It may be that the continued existence of youth detention centres themselves – with their consumption of a disproportionate share of juvenile justice budgets, and their tendency to present a deceptively appealing ‘out of sight, out of mind’ solution to a complex problem – create the greatest barriers to the development and adoption of alternative responses.

Despite this, alternative responses do exist, and demonstrate a path forward for youth justice. In Victoria, for example, Parkville College incorporates culturally appropriate and trauma informed practices, and establishes safeguards for young people in detention. Parkville College is a school within a detention facility in Melbourne.  Parkville College employs a therapeutic and trauma informed approach to learning and teaching. It aims to create lasting change for incarcerated students by establishing positive relationships and addressing the impact of trauma. It offers cultural connections to Koorie students and incorporates effective pathways for young people to maintain their education without interruption while transitioning out of detention.

Critically, it also helps create a safe environment for young people, and treats education as a right not a privilege. In many youth justice facilities, detainees frequently miss out on education because of the unavailability of custodial staff to supervise them, or because the ‘good order and security’ of the facility is prioritised above all else.  Normally, when education meets custody, custody wins. By contrast, if a young person is not available to participate in a class at Parkville College, education staff – having an obligation to teach them – can ask where they are, and for custodial staff to make them available.  Even if there is some valid reason for the absence of the student, the ability for teaching staff to ask the question provides an important measure of accountability. The learning environment established by the presence of teaching staff creates a fundamentally different culture, while the physical presence of teaching staff alongside custodial staff minimises the risk of inappropriate treatment.

Nationally and internationally, there are many other examples of innovative approaches to youth justice like Parkville College. Other jurisdictions are successfully harnessing the opportunities offered by restorative justice, therapeutic justice, justice reinvestment, culturally informed justice approaches, and solution-focussed courts to create more positive outcomes for young people.  Many of these responses are based on ‘user-centred’ approaches to designing solutions to entrenched and systemic problems. They recognise that to have the best chance of identifying opportunities for early intervention and diversion, the trajectory of people’s journeys through justice systems and processes must be understood. These are responses that focus on reducing trauma, and are informed by the people who have the most at stake in seeing them adopted. These responses focus on the power of education to transform young lives, disrupting the ‘trauma to prison pipeline’ and putting young people back on track. Innovative responses like these represent the best opportunity we have to change our approach for the better, so that another generation of young people are not lost to a system that fails to responds to their needs and the needs of the community.

The CIJ has formally provided the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory with a submission on innovative responses to youth justice.  Keep an eye out for the full submission on the Royal Commission website here.