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How community interventions can prevent youth crime



Jesuit Social Services recently released Dropping off the Edge 2021: Persistent and multilayered disadvantage in Australia. This is the fifth report in a series that began in 1999, the products of a long-term collaboration between the late, great Professor Tony Vinson AM and Jesuit Social Services.

Dropping off the Edge documents how disadvantage is concentrated in a small number of localities in every state and territory of Australia. This geographical concentration and the cumulative and compounding nature of the disadvantageous structural factors that generate it have profound intergenerational consequences, including chronic criminal offending by children as young as 10 years old.

The geographical distribution of deprivation in my home state of Queensland is broadly similar to patterns in other states and territories. A small minority of localities, mostly situated outside Greater Brisbane, suffer from disproportionately high rates of a wide array of problems including low income, overcrowding, long-term unemployment, particulate matter in the air, no internet, child maltreatment, and youth crime. These different strands of disadvantage pile-up and interlock, countering attempts to break free.

The web-like structure of disadvantage comes into sharp focus when one examines the most disadvantaged 3 per cent of Queensland locations. In these 15 places family violence, prison admissions, and juvenile convictions occur at shockingly high rates, both reflecting and reinforcing high rates of poverty.

I recently delivered the 2021 Tony Fitzgerald Lecture in Brisbane in which I focused on the early prevention of chronic youth offending. As a ‘pathological optimist’ I argued that the combination of prevention science and community empowerment through the co-creation of community controlled, data-guided, and evidence-based solutions tailored to the needs of local children and families can be one of the circuit-breakers that is needed by the most severely disadvantaged communities.

I also argued that this community-oriented public health approach to the seemingly intractable problem of youth crime can be a circuit breaker that policy makers need to break free from the ‘get tough’ punishment-oriented public discourse that disproportionately criminalises and incarcerates socially disadvantaged and First Nations children.


'The program was sustained for 10 years and had many positive outcomes, including at age 25 a 31 per cent reduction in violent crime and a 35 per cent reduction in crimes involving illegal drugs.' 


Being optimistic does not mean being unrealistic about the formidable challenges entailed in this radical early prevention agenda. The poverty and violence of the home and community environments from which most serious, repeat youth offenders come reflect the impacts of colonisation, the stolen generations, and racist police practices, to mention just a few of the most salient historic factors, and these malign legacies cannot be easily overcome. But as the Uluru Statement From the Heart asserts, ‘When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish.’

Respectful partnerships between communities, researchers, service providers, and governments can be the seedbed for the new ideas and the sharing of data and evidence that can turn high ideals into concrete realities that foster positive human development and reduce the flow of damaged children into youth detention.

And damaged these children are. A pioneering study of children in youth detention in Western Australia found that 89 per cent had at least one domain of severe neurodevelopmental impairment, and 36 per cent were diagnosed with FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) — the highest incidence for an incarcerated population anywhere in the world.

The very wide range of serious developmental impairments identified in this study contribute to problems at school and with employment, mental health, social exclusion, substance misuse and early and repeated engagement with police. We can be almost certain that the great majority of young people involved in serious, persistent criminal offending suffer from various forms of developmental impairments including longstanding and untreated conduct problems arising from FASD or other causes.

The good news is that we now have persuasive evidence that serious conduct problems can be addressed very effectively through sustained and holistic partnerships involving scientists, schools, families, and community members. The Fast Track Program in the United States was a 10-year multilevel preventive intervention designed by the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, a collaboration of some of the best prevention scientists in the world.

The program operated in four widely geographically separated communities in the United States throughout the 1990s. Working with children from age 5, it integrated a social-emotional learning program for all students (PATHS: Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) with a set of indicated or targeted interventions for children showing high rates of aggression at school entry. Project components included social-behavioural support, reading interventions, parenting classes, and home visiting to support healthy family development.

The program was sustained for 10 years and had many positive outcomes, including at age 25 a 31 per cent reduction in violent crime and a 35 per cent reduction in crimes involving illegal drugs. These effects were most marked for the highest risk children, approximately 10 per cent of the intervention sample.

In Australia we have the wealth and the expertise to adapt this and other pioneering studies to our own community contexts, working within the rapidly developing framework of co-creation and community control. But do we have the political will? That will probably depend on the successful implementation of several demonstration projects funded by philanthropy, research councils, and government as a foundation for sustained community advocacy.

It will be through preventative initiatives such as these that we have the best chance of breaking out of the policy prison of blame and incarceration. As Tony Vinson said when launching the first Dropping off the Edge report in 2007:

It is time to get serious about drawing the most severely disadvantaged neighbourhoods of our society into the mainstream economic and social prosperity characteristic of present-day Australia.


Ross Homel AO is Emeritus Professor, Criminology & Criminal Justice at Griffith University. 

Main image:  Father and son playing basket ball. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ross Homel, criminology, disadvantage, Jesuit Social Services



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Existing comments

Interesting...and concerns me deeply. The article starts as a homogenous solution of youth then precpitates an indigenous identity; it entwines Statement from the Heart with time-defined, focussed studies to arrive at some optimistic assertion that indigenous self-determination will (must?) cure all ills. SftH is (amongst other things) an outline of notional goals but fails the SMART test in many respects: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-constrained; it's ill-defined and assumes positive outcomes. "...our children will flourish." Ok, fine, but what about the rest? Does self-determination today somehow mean happy, healthy kids but ever-languishing adults as they age? FASD has been topical on ES previously; SftH says or suggests nothing to rein in a disorder of the child caused by a parent, it just shifts the blame; it doesn't enlist non-indigenous actions or equality. I don't interpret that the choice of destiny is an acceptance of wider responsibility. I'm looking forward to the Declaration from the Head that outlines the time-defined goals and objectives that resolve how and why mutually satisfactory outcomes are achieved for all. Four years is a long time to wait for a follow-up action plan.

ray | 10 December 2021  

This is one of the sanest, wisest and best evidence-backed articles on a tragic subject I have read. You also offer that ray of hope: effective, proven, geared intervention. It will have to be privately funded to begin with, because our politicos need straw villains to hang in effigy. These children do cause serious harm and that needs to be factored in. Many are Aboriginal and we, as the invaders, have devastated their culture and society. 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls...'

Edward Fido | 13 December 2021  

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