A different approach needed for youth justice


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.

Prison wall barbed wire fence with blue sky background (Photo by josefkubes/Getty Images).

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 their peer group and less independent in making decisions.

Today, too, young men are older when they make stable commitments through long term partnership or marriage. It is more common for them to live at home with their parents into their mid twenties. They have deeper connections to the community and have proved to respond better to programs of rehabilitation than older men.


"Young adults are distinctive, and they need to be treated distinctively."


The emphasis on control by punishment has failed. It does not control offending or reoffending, but only increases the level of public anxiety about offending. It is a vicious circle. There are better options which are designed around rehabilitation. They respect the physical and psychological development of young men and build on their changing conditions in society. They recognise young men from 18 to 25 as a distinctive group of emerging adults, so distinguishing them from other adults. Because they are distinctive, and they need to be treated distinctively.

Experience and reflection has led many nations to treat emerging adults under juvenile law with their own distinctive judicial processes. The goal of such processes is rehabilitation, so building on the relationships with families, good role models and work places in the community, and complementing them by strengthening connections with society through education. Through these experiences emerging adults can be accountable for their actions to the people whom they have hurt and contribute to the community.

The current plethora of news reports about the catastrophic effects of the treatment of prisoners considered normal by those administering it are testimony to a wrongheaded penal philosophy. New directions are needed, not least in the treatment of emerging adults.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Prison wall barbed wire fence with blue sky background (Photo by josefkubes/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, justice, youth justice, Victorian justice centres, incarceration



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Existing comments

A very successful template already exists for the management of young boys/men and girls/women who for various reasons, frequently associated with family environmental problems, find themselves at loggerheads with the law when living on the streets away from family and community social contact. Fr Chris Riley's Youth Off The Streets program has been eminently successful with the rehabilitation of such young people in a social environment which has introduced them to communal living without shackles of any kind and resulted in employment opportunities and indeed successful upgrading in academic achievement, in some cases to successful university careers. Some of his charges are cared for and rehabilitated essentially on farms remote from the ceaseless clamour of the city streets. Other similar systems run by other non-government agencies also exist. Such models are the modern equivalent of what was in my youth a borstal or reform school modified to remove the strict confinement and physically punitive programs that existed in those days. So many young people are victims of parental irresponsibility and when that applies in a particular case perhaps the parents should also be compulsorily admitted to non-punitive re-education and rehabilitation. Understanding, encouragement and trust have to be better than punishment. Fr Chris Riley always wore his priestly uniform when working on the streets of Sydney and was once asked why he did that when his obvious identification as a priest was likely to turn the young away - why not dress in jeans and tee shirt? He said that the youth respected and trusted him more when he was identifiably a priest. I sadly wonder whether that still applies in the wake of the abuse scandals.

john frawley | 11 September 2019  

‘Cooperative and therapeutic relationships are more effective than punitive relationships.‘ I agree. And I agree with John Frawley, too. Models of co-operative and therapeutic relationships have existed for many years. Why can’t we go back and look at what has worked? Why do we find it so difficult to hand on accumulated wisdom? Of course, programs like Youth off the Streets are expensive to run - governments always want cheaper short-term responses to marginalisation, disaffiliation and separation, and the cheapest response is more separation, more disaffiliation and, ultimately, permanent marginalisation. But we get the governments we deserve. We need something else, some body focussed on reconciliation, unity, restoration of right relationships. Oh, wait. Isn’t that us?

Joan Seymour | 12 September 2019  

In a previous life I was a Literacy/Numeracy Teacher in the NSW Correction System. I attended many education conferences and the Victorian system caring for young adult offenders was the envy of all other teachers. What has happened? In NSW education has been removed to distance education only. What happens to those who cannot read enough to participate in such programmes. These were the students I and many other teachers worked with., in the belief as the stats told us, that by lifting their literacy level from nothing to level 1,; from level 1 to level 2 dropped the recidivism rate enormously. What has happened except to save money on no teachers , and increase the gaol population.

Gabrielle | 12 September 2019  

The sort of treatment meted out to young offenders, Andy, is very reminiscent of what happened in the 18th and 19th Century, both in Britain and here. British and Australian prison officers are often ex-British Army, with a harsh punishment mindset. Isolation, for a young, not fully mature man could have an extremely deleterious effect on the victim of this antiquated and barbarous practice. Suicide frequently occurs. I think politicians are tapping into the law and order motif which many people believe in. Australian prisons are pretty dreadful and overcrowded compared with Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. Chris Riley is superb, but he is a bit of a voice crying in the wilderness. In Scandinavia they have mainstreamed his approach. We need to follow their example.

Edward Fido | 12 September 2019  

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