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Kids in custody


Kid behind barsToo many young people are ending up in our detention centres in most jurisdictions in Australia. How we respond to this fact will depend on how we see the problem.

We can see this as a law and order issue; young people commit crime, they do the time. If this is the case, then we had better start a Building the Custodial Revolution program because we will need more centres every year and they're not cheap!

While we're at it we had better take money out of a few services or infrastructure projects each year to fund the recurrent costs that will also increase.

Of course crime is a factor and sadly some young people commit very serious crimes for which we need centres to protect the community or even the young person. Young people should be held accountable for their actions.

But that does not explain (using NSW as an example) how almost 80 per cent of those on remand in a detention centre will not end up with a custodial sentence. Even if we ignore the international conventions that say custody should be a last resort, does it not seem a bit strange that we get the balance wrong 80 per cent of the time?

Even if we just see the problem through the lens of crime, we must also ask if custody is the best outcome for the community. Not in many cases, it would appear, as we also know that community based and restorative justice programs have lower rates of reoffending, therefore keeping the community safer.

Let's look beyond law and order for a moment. How else could we see the problem of young offenders in custody? What leads young people into crime in the first place?

Unfortunately there is no easy predictor of why some young people end up committing crimes and others in the same situation do not, but we do know the risk factors.

Around Australia young people are more likely to end up in custody if they are poor, Aboriginal or have a borderline or lower intellectual disability (IQ below 79), or any combination of these characteristics.

Bear in mind that we live in a wealthy country, that only 2.3 per cent of the population is Aboriginal, and only nine per cent of the population has an IQ below 79.

Those in detention centres probably left school at 14, have problems with alcohol or other drugs, and have often experienced abuse and trauma. Many will have a parent who has been to prison and will live in social housing. In NSW 6 per cent will have been homeless before being placed in custody.

When you look at it this way it makes it hard to see it solely as a law and order issue.

The prevalence of youth in detention is a call to work with communities in trouble and advocate for those over-represented in the system, not from a sense of paternalism, but from a genuine desire to see all young people achieve their potential; to offer them opportunities, and help them believe they can choose to seize them.

When Patrick Dodson won the Sydney University Peace Prize he spoke about how love is often missing in public debates. The more I met young people in trouble, the more I realised he was right.

Love is something that we as individuals, families and communities can give, but governments can't. But we can insist that governments give a helping hand and a shoulder to support families that need it. We can remind them that all people want to be treated with dignity and respect, and that too many children end up in detention. 

Graham WestGraham West is a former Juvenile Justice and Youth Minister in NSW, an advisory board member with Centacare Wilcannia — Forbes and a director of SHINE for Kids

Topic tags: Graham West, Juvenile Justice, Youth, young people in detention, remand



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Existing comments

Children in custody is a sad indictment on our society. Lack of opportunity, family breakdown, drugs, alcohol and homelessness are major issues. Early intervention for children at risk and a significant increase in funding to provide the necessary programs well supported with appropriate staffing levels would be money well spent. Imagine what outcomes we could have if only money was put in the right place and not into locking young people away. The loss of these children is also our loss in being unable to give them the opportunity to fully develop their potential and a vision and dream of what might be.

Angela McD | 06 October 2010  

All those portfolios and you still haven't a clue. Why don't you look at how many of these young offenders instigated crimes and how many were just following their peers like sheep ... like the father figures they never had.

like the government provides parks and footpaths for fat people when lack of exercise is not the main problem; its unhappiness and a low self esteem. So, make fat people happy by asking them what will make them happy and make young offenders aware of the failings of their peers who they follow. Fix up the one's that aren't really broken and 80 percent becomes ten percent.

Greig WIlliams | 06 October 2010  

Greg, thanks for the contribution. The one point that looms largely in my thinking is that if we focus on punishment, then continue to rearrange the federal and state budgets to pay for this thinking. If jail worked, then it would be seriously acknowledged as a deterrent.

The simple fact is that denial of liberty does not work; but still we lumber along the same path in the vain hope that we will find a magical cure, that these kids (while sitting in some cell somewhere) will have their eureka moment and change their ways. What if we asked, 'How is it that I do not go off the rails? (hopefully this is true most of the time). What is it that keeps me operating not only within the law, but as a human force for good? When we acknowledge reasons as to what has guided us, then we will know what our poor brother and sisters are missing out on.

Vic O'Callaghan | 06 October 2010  

Instead of using money to keep young people in custody, the money should be used to set up a trade/agricultural/work centre to teach these young people skills and to evangelise them by teaching them the true Catholic Faith. Make them understand that their true purpose in life is to get their souls to Heaven and how to live a life on the narrow path, pointing out the wide road that leads to Hell.

In other words, teach them the Social Kingship of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

It is their souls that need nourishing and by helping them to lead productive working lives, they will have a much more rewarding life and will save so much future suffering all around.

Trent | 06 October 2010  

'Love, dignity and respect' are great ideals and values to be promoted and realised for all people including our youth. The margninalised, the discarded and the often forgotten youth unfortunately all to frequently do not have these ideals and values provided as positive atmospheres at 'home.' It is axiomatic in sociology that three generations of unemployment and rejection of education engenders a self-perpetuating class who think that the 'abnormal' (for most) is 'normal.' Hopelessness and self-loathing give way to anti-social blind rage and destructive behaviours. It's no wonder that the promise of 'you can be whatever you want to be' remains largely an unachievable mantra for so many of our youth.

David Timbs | 06 October 2010  

I enjoyed Graham West's article on youth and crime - please pass onto him that there are some useful items on www.vitae.org.au and www.youtube.com/bushventure. Why does government support an over 90% failure rate in detention centres and ignore a 90% succees rate at a third the price?

John Guy | 06 October 2010  

My wife worked at Minda Juvenile Detention Centre as a teacher in the late '90s. Her lasting impression was of how few white kids there were. Why? Because they weren't picked on by the inherently racist system that determined how an offender would be treated. If you were an Aboriginal, Lebanese, Islander or Vietnamese offender, detention was the place for you. If you were white, you were presumably redeemable or, alternatively, you had the resources to avoid detention. I think that may be part of the problem as well.

I note Vic O'Callaghan has submitted a comment. Thank you, Vic, for your hard work setting up restorative justice systems in schools - invaluable in trying to create an atmosphere of trust and hope. A little bit of that in the juvenile justice system would go a long way to resolving the issues that Graham West raises here.

Erik H | 06 October 2010  

Let's keep talking about children in custody and juvenile detention and pray that we can help build community consensus that locking up young people in most cases is bad policy and has bad outcomes. There are better ways to respond.

Heather | 13 October 2010  

I live in Wilcannia and love it here but it is such a shame for the kids they have nothing. Some don't have good home lives between drugs and grog no work what do these kids have to look forward to. Stop with all this funding it will do no good some one walks in gets funding and leaves. Kids still get nothing. The youth need help they are only doing what they see others doing. A in door sports center with everything that gos with it would be a great help for them. Jobs when leaving school.

In 7 yrs Ive seen some many people working here not living here traveling 400ks a day to go to work Why not train our youth for these jobs. Save all these cars coming in and going out its a joke. Please some one give these kids a go

Heather Walsh | 25 October 2010  

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