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A pause to reflect in the wake of the youth justice storm

Julie Edwards |  14 March 2017


At present the tornado that has raged in youth justice for some months has abated. Disturbing images from Don Dale led to a royal commission in the Northern Territory.

Boy seated on the floor of youth detention facilityIn Melbourne, public fears about gang violence, carjackings, robberies and youth detention centre riots were followed by the placing of many young people in an adult prison facility and a pledge to build a new prison for young offenders. This pause offers time for reflection on the human reality and needs of children who are involved in the justice system.

It is why Jesuit Social Services has invited Vincent Schiraldi, a researcher and reformer in Washington and New York, to speak at its National Justice Symposium next week to look at worldwide trends and how we can apply lessons learned to our very different Australian context. A broader view offers time to take stock and to ask what matters in this area.

The recent disturbances have made clear that in our response to children who act violently or anti-socially two things matter. One is to ensure the community feels their lives and homes are safe.

Second we need to recognise that the future of our society rests in our children's hands. In this malleable stage of their lives we must help them to connect with society and to respect themselves and others. Otherwise our future harvest will be crime with all its costs in damage to persons and unprofitable diversion of public resources.

Our challenge as a society is to hold these two imperatives together: to ensure the safety of the community and to care for alienated children. In times of public panic and heated controversy, our response must respect what we know about both the prevention of crime and the consequences of different ways of treating children.

We need to strengthen the families and communities where young people who are drawn to criminal behaviour come from, and to help them connect with society through education, employment, sport and other community activities.

We also need to strengthen the resources of intergenerational disadvantaged families and neighbourhoods by providing child care, mentoring and programs for children whose education and employment experience have been of failure. We need to ensure parents and adults in those communities have real employment options and ways to participate actively in their communities.


"When children's connections with the community are broken, for ill more than for good, they are deprived of meaningful engagement with the world."


As in other areas of lively public concern, everyone has an opinion about dealing with young offenders. Many proposals are simple and punitive: lock them up and throw away the key is a summary of the most common. Such paths have been walked in the past, and it is important to evaluate their success.

We can see from studies of family violence, that violence begets violence, disrespect begets disrespect and both beget later depression and diminishment. Survivors of harsh orphanages, children's homes, boarding schools and juvenile justice centres testify to the catastrophic effect these places had on their ability to form personal and social relationships.

We also know that juvenile jails are too often preparatory schools for adult prisons. That is understandable. When children's connections with the community are broken, for ill more than for good, they are deprived of meaningful engagement with the world. Their relationships with adults are focused on authority and obedience and their peer relationships reinforce a world view of disadvantage and deprivation.

The conflict that becomes their daily companion is exacerbated when younger children are placed with older ones, and when people on remand are placed with those whose cases have been heard. Violence is a natural result.

The coinage of punitive solutions for those who suffer them is alienation, depression, disconnection from society when released and increased likelihood of spending time in adult prisons. The coinage in which the community pays is lack of hospitals, schools and resources for disadvantaged communities because the money that could have funded them is spent on building more jails. These jails in turn breed the demand for more jails.

Simple and simplistic solutions quickly chosen sometimes complicate issues — and youth justice is already complicated enough. For that reason, taking time to reflect, to look at the evidence about what works, to consult broadly, to consider carefully and to invest in the future is far more productive. This is not an easy path to take but the rewards will be evident for the whole community — including our vulnerable children and young people — for generations to come.


Julie EdwardsJulie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services.



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"...we need to recognise that the future of our society rests in our children's hands". Agree completely Julie but beg to suggest that those hands are highly unlikely to belong to the lawbreakers who have been deprived of parental or any other source of guidance. Our future is secure in the hands of the normal well behaved kids who are going to school and working towards a future towards which they aspire as a responsible contributor. I reckon some of the parents should be detained rather than their children.

john frawley 15 March 2017

A timely article Julie. This is Sourced from Infrastructure NSW Feb 1 2017 : "The new Grafton Correctional Centre will be a correctional facility servicing the northern part of NSW. It will be the primary correctional complex for all correction operations from the Queensland border in the north, Kempsey in the south-east and Tamworth in the south-east. When complete, it will accommodate up to 1,700 beds and will deliver hundreds of jobs to the region. It will create long term economic opportunities locally through the procurement of a range of goods and services." So we obviously can only create employment by incarcerating a further 1700 wounded souls many of whom will be teenagers. What is wrong with the politicians in this country? Maybe those inmates could be paid to build a 200 megawatt solar farm instead of rotting in goal. Have we progressed in our thinking in 200 years?

Francis Armstrong 16 March 2017

Thank you so much, Julie, for your excellent article. I appreciate the way you try to hold together the two critical concerns of community safety and the needs of children and young people caught up in our justice system. You're absolutely right when you speak about seeking to engage these child offenders in meaningful involvement in society. I believe that we owe it to these children and young people to 'help them to connect with society and to respect themselves and others.' I also believe it's correct to focus on intergenerational disadvantage and poverty. Much more funding needs to go into child care and schooling that helps mentor these children from an early age. I really wish that Australian churches would speak up more for the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable children and young people in our society. Sadly I think we've become too caught up in only looking after the wellbeing of our church and private schools.

robert van zetten 16 March 2017

As a former chaplain at Malmsbury Juvenile Justice Centre of 8 years, I have been disheartened by the current situation and the knee jerk response of politicians who, at least in part, are responsible for the current situation. The gradual (cost saving) shift from community service personnel to corrections like security reaps its own reward. If you treat young people with respect and encouragement, they respond accordingly; if you treat them as criminals, they will reacy accordingly. Thank you for your article. Please keep the pressure on politicians for a more sensible response.

Br Pe A Walshter 16 March 2017

Thanks Julie for this thoughtful article. In my experience when I was a single parent, it was other adults my age (now 60s) who were the rudest and most selfish when interacting with my children (both personally, professionally and institutionally). I used to challenge this mis-behaviour by reminding them that if we brutalise our children ... when we become vulnerable, we in turn will more likely be brutalised. Sadly, the mantra "I'm alright Jack" is alive and well in Australia. We need to be standing up for our young people and calling out bad adult behaviour for what it is - selfish and abusive. With the social currency now not one of "community" but rather the idea of "networks", the idea of shared-responsibility is one that no longer resonates with many people. We need to be careful what we say, and how we use our language to convey our ideas or we end up colluding with the "network" culture where ... at the moment ... consequences slide off into the abyss. Those with the least capacity to defend themselves carry the heaviest burdens. Keep up the great work at JSS.

Mary Tehan 16 March 2017

Thanks, Julie. You have offered a lot of wisdom, understanding and humanity to a situation which polarises the community and leads to simplistic solutions that don't work.

Peter Dowlilng 16 March 2017

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