Australia’s focus on punishment rather than youth diversion is counterproductive


A Queensland Juvenile Court recently heard that a girl who was arrested in Innisfail in Queensland could not be transferred to Cleveland Youth Detention Center in Townsville because the center was packed and could no longer accept admissions.

As a result, the girl remained in the high security police guard house in Innisfail, along with a number of adult men.

The case has reignited debate about whether Australia’s approach to troubled young people is wrong and, if so, what to do about it.

Overcrowding in youth detention centers

The police blame the situation regarding the girl’s detention in a custodial home due to an increase in youth crime, stricter bail laws (meaning more young people remain in custody after being charged with criminal offences) and the resulting overcrowding of youth detention centres.

The Queensland government, for its part, remained silent on the issue.

Part of the reason for the silence may be to avoid the situation in which the media rehashes the fact that following the airing of a 2019 ABC Four Corners show which revealed that the confinement of he children with adult offenders was becoming the norm rather than the exception in Queensland. , the state government has promised to end the situation by expanding existing detention centers, building new ones, and shifting the focus from incarceration to diversion.

This program, called The Watch House Records reviewed more than 500 cases where children as young as ten were held with “murderers, pedophiles and drug addicts…in maximum-security police watch houses”

Little has changed

Recent investigations by the country’s public broadcaster have found that, far from eradicating the practice, the continued focus on punitive measures rather than prevention and diversion has ensured its persistence, endangering the well-being mental and physical health of some of the country’s most vulnerable children. .

Raising the age of criminal responsibility

Linked to issues of youth crime and overcrowded youth detention centers is the low age responsibility across the country. And Australia has long called for the age at which young people can be prosecuted, which is currently 10, to be more in line with many other countries where the age is 14, and to focus on their diversion from the criminal justice system.

Not just in Queensland

The unacceptable treatment of young people in detention is certainly not unique to the state of the sun,

In this regard, the Royal Commission on the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory heard horrific evidence of young boys at Don Dale Detention Center being subjected to “repeated and harrowing abuse”, deprived of basic necessities such as water, and legal requirements, including limits on the use of force and isolation, being systematically ignored.

Child molesters are not brought to justice

To date, no criminal charges have been brought against the prison officers responsible for the appalling abuse to which these children have been subjected.

And in recent times, Banksia Hill Detention Center in Western Australia has come under the spotlight for its dilapidated, broken and unsanitary facilities, deplorable conditions and abhorrent treatment of youngsters locked inside. Overcrowding at the facility is also a problem.

Media attention has been significant, criticism of the Western Australian government has also been widespread, but children are still being sent there and the state appears to be doing little to rectify the situation.

Governments keep failing our children

As noted, Australia has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world – the global average is 14. The adoption of this latest age is based on scientific and medical research which shows that at the age of ten children’s brains are still developing and they do not fully understand the consequences and severity of their acts.

Much research has also shown that early contact with the justice system almost prepares young people for a life of crime, rather than deterring them.

Last year, around 50 organisations, including Amnesty International, argued for the importance of raising age and the dangers of early entry into the penal system. An overwhelming 96% of these organizations highlighted the overrepresentation of Indigenous children as a predominant concern in their advocacy for raising the age.

Indigenous youth

In Australia, Indigenous children are locked up at more than ten times the rate of non-Indigenous children, despite being a minority of the population. Of all children under 14 imprisoned between 2017 and 2021, 65% were Indigenous and 68% of them were locked up despite not being convicted of any crime.

Of course, for Indigenous children, the impact of being placed in juvenile detention at a young age is particularly detrimental due to systemic racism and the biases of the justice system.

So far in Australia, the ACT is the only jurisdiction to propose a change, promising to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the state to 12 ‘soon’, with an increase to 14 in the next two years. years. The New South Wales Parliament has considered doing so, but has yet to pass legislative reform.

Sending children to court is not the solution

Despite the juvenile court – which aims to operate in a much less formal way than an “adult” court and much more sensitive to the needs of young people – children who must go through the criminal justice process experience significant impacts on their health, well-being and therefore their future prospects. Ultimately, the research shows that the punitive approaches currently being taken in Australia simply don’t work.

And, frustratingly, we have a number of successful templates that can be used as an alternative. These are programs that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration by addressing the root causes of criminal behavior as well as education – helping children understand the consequences of their actions and what it means to be a productive member of the society.

So why aren’t we using them more?

Time and again, Australian governments have been extremely slow to embrace change, particularly when that change offers a radical alternative to what has been the ‘norm’ or ‘status quo’ for several decades. And it’s infuriating – not only because it endangers the youngest and most vulnerable members of our community, but also because it only perpetuates the cycle of crime and trauma which also has a social and enormous long-term economics.

In other words, no one benefits from the current punitive approach that keeps sending young people back to prison.


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