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Kids corrupted by criminal treatment

  • 07 March 2013

When it comes to responding to children who behave badly, we have come a long way. In Roman times children, like wives and slaves, were seen as possessions of the father of the house. He had the right to beat and even kill them. Under the law children over seven were treated as little adults, liable to the same punishments for crimes.

Even in 19th century England, children were sentenced to death, although the sentences were almost always commuted. In general, harsh punishment was a favoured way to encourage responsibility in children and adults.

Today conventional wisdom no longer sees children as small adults, but as people growing towards responsibility and constructive participation in society. When they break the law, the response is usually to help them find a better way. They have special courts and supportive programs. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests punishment and incarceration are ineffective in encouraging responsibility.

That is the theory. But in practice children often suffer in Australia because the welfare of the child is often trumped by the demands of a justice system focused on containment of risk and due process for wrongdoers. And that in turn is overtrumped by the the populist call to get tough on crime.

All this could be seen in the January riot at Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre in Perth (pictured). It was overcrowded because the only other juvenile centre had been closed. Seventy per cent of the children there were Indigenous, and many on remand. After the riot the children were sent to Hakea adult prison.

Deserving of particular reflection in this depressing story is the way in which throughout Australia children are routinely remanded in custody, the subject of a recent report.

Remand is part of the criminal justice system. It follows apprehension by police and their decision to charge rather than to caution, and then to seek to have bail denied. On any night about 500 young people aged ten or more may be remanded in custody in Australia. Banksia Hill was typical in including a large number of Indigenous children and of children who have been remanded before.

Although remand is an effective tool for managing high risk to the community, it does not encourage children to develop social responsibility. Many children on remand appear again in children's courts and graduate to adult prisons. This is understandable. Developing the capacity to overcome problems depends on a supportive environment, a sense of self-worth