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Juvenile injustice



A few weeks ago I was drawn to the final item of The Weekend Australian’s editorial column, a section I have been known to pass over. Under the heading, ‘Hurt boy’s inhuman treatment’, was set out the details of a 15-year-old West Australian boy who had been ‘locked alone in a glass-walled observation cell of a juvenile detention centre in the southern suburbs of Perth for 79 days.’

Having previously spent time as lawyer working predominantly in the Children’s Court of Victoria, there isn’t too much about the State’s treatment of young people that shocks me. Even so, this was hard to believe, hard to bear the thought of. It’s been sitting with me since. The boy did not leave his cell at all for 33 of the 79 days he was in solitary confinement at Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre. The confinement itself was found by the Perth Children’s Court President, Hylton Quail, to have been unjustly punitive and was without any rehabilitating effect.

The incarcerated adolescent, an Indigenous Australian, has been a ward of the state since the age of seven, so in some legal sense it was his own parent who locked him up in such deplorable circumstances. That he plead to assaulting guards 19 times while jailed surely says more about systems of state ‘care’ and ‘justice’ for our marginalised young than about the character of this young person.

Reporting of the assaults reminded me of a piece about a ‘Youth Justice Centre’ on the other side of the country. Over Christmas I mulled a report that the Victorian Minister for Youth Justice, Natalie Hutchins, could not guarantee an end to assaults on staff and young people at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre. The Centre was described as ‘troubled’, which is what might be expected of a facility that locks-up increasing numbers of adolescents and young men, where there have been over 628 police callouts for alleged assaults since 2016.

This culture of violence was related in an ABC report in late December, with a former employee of the facilitating asserting that the violence had increased as Malmsbury moved to a ‘high-security environment’. Another said the possibility of rehabilitation for those incarcerated was impossible in an environment of ongoing assault. An environment where, as the Victorian Auditor General’s office has found, young people are routinely ‘locked down’ in their cells so that an understaffed workforce can take breaks.


'In the face of such a dehumanising system holding to a deep conviction that each human person has dignity is paramount. As is recognising that we owe a special attention to those whose dignity is unheeded.'


Occasionally the outrages of locking-up our young people enters the public consciousness. The treatment of those incarcerated at Don Dale Detention Centre in the Northern Territory gained much attention following an ABC Four Corners program in 2016. A subsequent Royal Commission recommended the centre’s closure. That recommendation was made four years ago. A report late last year of an 11-year-old Indigenous child being bailed after spending time on remand at the centre underlined the fact that it remains open. In Australia in 2020 499 children aged 10 to 13 were incarcerated, 65 per cent of them were Indigenous children.

These issues slip from consciousness for a variety of reasons. The situation of almost any young person who spends time in incarceration is likely to be highly complex. The systemic responses to these individual challenges can all to easily go in the ‘too hard basket’. Youth justice issues have become a policy ‘third rail’, sensible reforms untouchable because of the easy tag of ‘soft on crime’ hurled by oppositions and sections of the media.

I only have to remember the times as a lawyer mid last decade when I attended court to find I had an extra client in the cells, also finding that members of the press were already aware of their presence there and were ready to make applications to overcome the confidentiality afforded minors in legal proceedings. Stories of ‘youths’ run amuck, and government’s going soft on them, must get clicks.

More deeply, I wonder if a significant part of the challenge for policy in this area isn’t that the very complexity of these young people means that they are not really, as I have suggested above, ‘our’ young people. Most of us will not know a young person who is incarcerated. Most of us have no firsthand dealing with the child protection system with which well over a third of those who come into contact with the youth justice system have contact. We sense the systemic treatment as regrettable but somewhere like Malmsbury, 100km out of town, drifts out of mind.

In time the narrative of such young people, in particular young men, all too easily moves from unease about these systemic responses to their adolescent bad behaviour to disgust at their violent thuggery as young men. Our discourse can get caught in a victim/abuser binary that misses that, as for instance recorded by the Victorian Parole Board, of  those young people incarcerated in Victoria, 71 per cent were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect and 42 per cent presented with cognitive difficulties that affect their daily functioning.

All too easily cycles of violence and abuse recur. Confining large numbers of minors who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect in understaffed, under-resourced facilities is likely only to exacerbate these cycles of recurrence. In the face of such a dehumanising system holding to a deep conviction that each human person has dignity is paramount. As is recognising that we owe a special attention to those whose dignity is unheeded.

We need not be caught in emotive campaigns of any kind. What is required is a long hard look at the evidence of what works, and what doesn’t. There are a number of organisations promoting initiatives to address these issues. As part of these efforts, Jesuit Social Services has done this, and the policy campaign ‘Worth a Second Chance’ seeks a way forward based on that evidence. It contends for a rise in the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, and investment in a model that prioritises early intervention, local community initiatives that connect young people to family and culture, and developmentally appropriate education that supports social engagement.

These are proposals based on programs that have worked, that deliver benefits for those most vulnerable, and so for communities who’s good is promoted by young people diverted from patterns of criminality and violence, not sent to places that systemically enculturate such behaviour.



Julian ButlerJulian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also has degrees in commerce and philosophy. Julian is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Banksia Hill ISU cells. (Custodial Services Inspector's report 2020) 

Topic tags: Julian Butler, Youth Justuce, Incarceration, Detention



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Existing comments

A terrible, largely mismanaged problem. Human beings generally don't respond positively to criticism or punishment and are more likely to respond negatively in the opposite direction. The vets deal with seemingly ingrained problems in misbehaving canines far better than "corrective services" deal with human beings, particularly children. They reverse bad behaviour in their charges by providing a tasty reward if they behave. The BOYS TOWN concept of rehabilitation was eminently successful in salvaging many wayward children, predominantly victims of appalling and negligent parenting (71% of young people incarcerated in Victoria, according to your research Br Butler) and in more recent times the same order of priests and brothers , through the vision of Fr Chris Riley were eminently successful in NSW with the salvage and resurrection of both young boys and girls living on the streets in Sydney and elsewhere BECAUSE OF IN-FAMILY ABUSE AND NEGLECT and predominantly non- indigenous. Both Boys Town and Fr Chris Riley offered rewards. They were shown a different life, remote from their experiences in their formative years, (on a farm) and given hope and an education. Many went on to university after their rehab in Fr Riley's care. "Give me the boy to the age of seven and I will give you the man" - or words to that effect from Ignatius Loyola have proven prophetic over the years. All that has to be done is to remove abused young children from their toxic environment and show them love, care and reward, not punishment. The template has already been laid down by Ignatius and the Fr Riley's of the world. Let's revisit it as a major goal of Jesuit social services. The neglect that has produced the miscreant child is where the punishment should be meted out - and that is predominantly (71% in Victoria) to the parents, not necessarily by incarceration but through compulsory education and rehabilitation with practical penalties for non- compliance(eg reduced govt pensions etc) and rewards for compliance. If I wasn't such a decrepit old bugger I wouldn't mind starting up the system myself. Rewards for compliance would be a lot cheaper than the running costs of prisons.

john frawley | 23 February 2022  
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I think Mr Frawley should be aware of the naming of Boystown in the Royal Comission into Institutional Sexual Abuse before blaming negligent parents for all the problems in Juvenile Justice.

Jan Wright | 25 February 2022  

We read countless articles of concern about the injustices in youth detention. All Australians should be concerned especially as the percentage of incarcerated Aboringinal youth is far greater than all other Australians.
Here though is a more distressing and disgusting statistic to also be concerned about: the huge number of Aboriginal children taken from their families by the Department of Justice and Communities who end up incarcarated. Some are taken before birth. Yes quite true!

Jan Wright | 24 February 2022  

Jan Wright. The fact that an institution was named in the Commission into Child Sexual Abuse does not cancel out the great good done by the vast majority of its members who are not child abusers. And don't forget - over 90% of child abuse (physical, psychological and sexual) occurs in close and extended families.

john frawley | 25 February 2022  

Being 'deprived of sensory stimulation' is condemned by the Geneva Convention and yet it still seems a practice at times in Australian youth facilities. It hardly seems to raise concern in areas of the general population.

Michele Madigan | 28 February 2022  

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