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March 25, 2014

Triple J Interview; Youth Justice Takes a Backward Step

by dankrogers

Youth in Jail

Young people occupy a vulnerable place in our society. They are still undergoing important brain development, and both behavioural psychology and neuroscience attest that adolescents are less able to control their impulses, plan ahead, and weigh the consequences of their decisions before acting.

Last week the LNP Government passed amendments to the Youth Justice Act. These amendments represent significant changes to the way in which the courts and our community treat children. Among the reforms include the removal of imprisonment as a last resort and secondly, the removal of prohibitions on the publication of child offenders (a green light for “naming and shaming” kids).

Last night, I participated in a discussion on Triple J’s Hack program where the Premier, Campbell Newman and I shared our views on these drastic changes to youth justice. For a link to the podcast of the program, click here.

Diverting young people from formal court processes and from prison environments is most important. It is for this reason that international law has promoted the establishment of separate juvenile justice systems which treats young offenders differently to adult offenders. These amendments are contrary to international law. The principle of detention as a last resort is a fundamental principle of juvenile justice and is contained in numerous instruments of international law including the Convention on the Rights of Children.

The principle of detention as a last resort is protected in all other Australian jurisdictions. Queensland is the only place in Australia where this abolition has occurred. Not only is detention inappropriate, it has also shown to be ineffective in reducing recidivism. In fact, it is more likely that detention entrenches young people in the criminal justice system. The AIHW has found that 71% of those in detention in 2010-11 had returned to sentenced supervision within one year, and 91% had returned within two years. Young people are susceptible to being influenced by their peers, and detention is no exception. Indeed, a paper published by the Australian Institute of Criminology describes prisons as “‘universities of crime’ that enable offenders to learn more and better offending strategies and skills, and to create and maintain criminal networks.”

“Naming and shaming” is similarly a poor response to a perceived problem with youth crime. It carries a high risk of stigmatising young offenders. Stigma can cause a young person to suffer prejudicial treatment from their community and form a negative self-identity as a criminal. As the theory goes, give them a label and they will act in accordance with it. Furthermore, media reports which identify a young offender as a criminal will have significant effects on the young person’s rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. The internet, of course, makes this problem very real and long-term. This ultimately affects rates of re-offending or recidivism. It is in the interests of the community to reduce this.

Jails are terrible places for adults. For children, they are even worse. The idea of going direct to jail is narrow minded and contrary to clear evidence as to its effectiveness in reducing crime. Naming and shaming children is similarly a poor response to a perceived problem with youth crime. These laws ought to be repealed.

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