Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


A different approach needed for youth justice

  • 11 September 2019
The Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has published a damning report of the use of isolation for children in Victorian justice centres. It draws attention to the loose regulation and opaque practices of isolation as a response to disturbance, to the vulnerability of the young persons against whom it is used, the high proportion of Indigenous children among its victims, and to its proven harmful impact on children. Those acquainted with the administration of juvenile justice in Australia will find nothing new in the report. Therein lies its scandal.

The use of isolation, however, is only one expression of a more fundamental and enduring attitude governing the response of the public and of governments to misbehaviour by children and young men. It is the emphasis on control and punishment, whose preferred form is imprisonment. This has harmful effects not only on children but on young men between 18 to 25. The forthcoming National Justice Symposium will examine more effective ways of responding to this group.

At present, the proportion of young men from 18 to 25 imprisoned is higher than that of the general population. Indigenous young men between those ages far more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous. Over half the young men held in prison in Victoria reoffend within two years. This proportion is higher than the national average.

These numbers suggest that the focus on imprisonment is a tried and failed solution. It is always difficult, however, to think beyond what has always been done. In boys schools when corporal punishment for misbehaviour was routine, teachers and parents who had known only that system feared that the boys would be uncontrollable if that sanction was removed. Control and punishment shaped the way people imagined the relationship between teachers and pupils.

When the relationships within schools changed and misbehaviour was treated through engaging with boys in other ways, however the schools became a better environment for learning and boys could be held accountable for their actions in ways that helped their growth into adults. Cooperative and therapeutic relationships are more effective than punitive relationships.

Many factors urge removing young men from the adult justice system and providing special procedures for dealing with them. In the first place, studies of brain development have shown consistently that our brains do not develop fully until the age of 25. Before that young men have less understanding of the consequences of their actions and are more influenced by