Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Rethinking and reconstructing youth justice



A major public storm erupted recently in Victoria about the government's proposal to locate a new juvenile justice detention centre at Werribee in the city's south west. Locals saw it as demeaning to their neighbourhood, and public pressure forced the government to change the location.

Silhouette of boy and barsIn my view, it's not the site that's wrong, but the whole idea. We have already seen across the nation that putting hundreds of behaviourally disturbed kids of different ages with different needs in one prison-like institution is a recipe for further trouble.

We should have learned that from riots and other violence, at the Cleveland Centre in Townsville, Don Dale in the NT, Parkville, Malmsbury and Barwon in Victoria, Banksia Hill in WA, or Kariong in NSW.

This is only likely to continue while we keep trying to impose a failed adult corrections model on kids. We need to treat them differently because they are different: their emotional maturity, impulse control, and social connectedness are incomplete.

Many of the kids in the juvenile justice system have been abused, come from dysfunctional families or state care, or have untreated behavioural, mental health or substance abuse problems.

Warehousing them in the punishing idleness of a prison regime and expecting passive compliance, let alone any recovery, is fanciful. I have recently begun to think about how we could respond to these kids in a holistic way, with a strong emphasis on prevention and diversion. The proposals below relate specifically to the current system in Victoria, but the principles generalise easily.

The first priority should be the establishment of a world-class young peoples forensic assessment and treatment service. It would work in all four areas of a holistic youth justice system. In prevention and diversion, it would develop programs to support schools, school support services, police, families and local and cultural communities. In supervision and intervention, it would identify not only the needs of young people, but also the level of risk they pose to themselves and others.

Much of the expertise to undertake these tasks already exists. The pressing need is for clear policy direction, excellent clinical leadership, strong coordination, adequate resources and refocusing.


"Doing some or all of this, or more, will be expensive. But at least it has some chance of not being good money thrown after bad, which is what a continuation of the current model will deliver in wasted lives."


For young people who are charged with multiple or serious offences, this service would need an assessment and treatment centre, a residential facility run on the model of a therapeutic service provided by mental health professionals, within a perimeter secured by professional corrections staff.

Effective diversion programs will need specially trained police and more community youth workers. In Victoria, some of the recently promised 4000 extra police should be trained to work in prevention and community diversion with young people. Some have already been 'hypothecated' to work in family violence prevention. Many of those they work with will be kids often seen in the youth justice system.

A new young peoples supervision service should replace adult concepts like probation, bail and parole, with broad, flexible, court-supervised community orders.

The Children's Court should be totally revamped and enlarged. It needs to be able to respond to young people's offending behaviour in a much more timely way — in days, not weeks. It needs to be able to identify children at risk in its protection jurisdiction and steer them toward diversionary programs. In Victoria, as well as incorporating the resources and experience of the Youth Parole Board, community members and mental health professionals should be recruited to the bench to play a strong role in the court's diversion and supervision responsibilities.

The court will necessarily take decisions to detain some young people beyond assessment and treatment, for risk management and sometimes punitive reasons. At least initially and perhaps even in the longer run, the system will need a high-security detention facility to deal with particularly dangerous and recidivist offenders, but that absolutely should not form the model for the whole system, nor should these kids be housed with others who are much more vulnerable. The facility should house no more than 50 kids, should still have a primary rehabilitation focus, even in a high-security environment, and should be used only as a last resort for the shortest time possible.

Beyond the high-security and assessment and treatment centres, there should be youth education centres. Well-trained corrections staff would take care of security, but inside the walls would be a secondary school campus, a couple of TAFEs, an outdoor skills learning centre, and a special purpose Aboriginal learning facility, all charged with engaging local communities. A series of step up/step down 'foyers' would allow kids to continue programs they begin in detention while living in the community, or to start programs without being detained after assessment and treatment.

Doing some or all of this, or more, will be expensive — a major investment in radically new infrastructure. But at least it has some chance of not being good money thrown after bad, which is what a continuation of the current model will deliver in wasted lives.


Terry LaidlerTerry Laidler, a former ABC Melbourne broadcaster, is a psychologist with wide forensic experience, from the Parole Board to chairing the Mental Health Reform Council.

Topic tags: Terry Laidler, youth justice



submit a comment

Existing comments

the fact that it is expensive means it will not happen.

lb | 27 March 2017  

Makes sense to me, Terry, but governments want quick-fix solutions that they can sell to an anxious public, not a rational long term solution that might save young people from further incarceration in adult prisons and save public funds in the longer term.

Frank Golding | 27 March 2017  

Thanks Terry, Over the past 5 years, this comprehensively preventative model of Justice Reinvestment has been advocated in Queensland by the Balanced Justice Campaign. We are a 22 member network drawn from 7 relevant disciplines. Prevention above all else is our theme song. Already, some of the more substantial diversionary processes such as the Youth Conferencing system are delivering very tangibly. The Newman government (2012-2015) would not meet with us in any meaningful way. The current government is listening but the road ahead is long and tricky.

Wayne Sanderson | 27 March 2017  

I couldn't agree more with Terry Laidler's assessment of the deficiencies in present youth detention systems and his clear sighted and eminently practical solutions to rehabilitating young lawbreakers.

Laura Murray Cree | 27 March 2017  

Well said Terry Laidler. In the long run it is less expensive of course. And what about the human toll? We do have elements that are worthwhile in Vic - group conferencing, police warnings, youth sex offending programs. All is not lost! I would add the need to rethink how staff work with young offenders some of whose lives reek of the need for intensity, sensory and performance experiences to mitigate against offending.

Carmel Brown | 27 March 2017  

Excellent, well thought out response to an obviously urgent need. Thanks so much, Terry. You begin with compassionate, accurate understanding - 'Many of the kids in the juvenile justice system have been abused, come from dysfunctional families or state care, or have untreated behavioural, mental health or substance abuse problems.' And then you go on to make extremely helpful and wise suggestions for how to change the current systems which are clearly not working. Your emphasis on therapeutic support is terrific, and the 'youth education centres' would offer wonderful support to students who have begun life with severe disadvantage. Putting your suggestions into practice would help make society a much safer and better place for all and surely that is something no politician or government could oppose?

Robert Van Zetten | 27 March 2017  

Australia, as far as treating young offenders and their older counterparts well goes, is pretty low down on the list of economically advanced countries. Yours is an excellent and thoroughly realistic assessment, Terry. I wish our governments, federal and state, would look at the really positive outcomes from the adult prison system in Denmark. There they have very much the same sort of system you recommend for young offenders here and it manifestly works. A psychologist I worked with years ago told me that the only solution to many of our long term social problems in this country was massive investment in social programs. The alternative, he said, would be horrific and that's true.

Edward Fido | 27 March 2017  

Well said Terry. I have steered clear of professional involvement with criminal law over the years because it has always seemed to me that for all but the dangerous, the boredom and social isolation of gaol is such a a hopelessly in appropriate (and expensive) option. All the more so for young people. Of course your solution would take political vision and courage. Haven't seen much of that around lately!

Lawrence Moloney | 27 March 2017  

The model that you are proposing is similar to those in place in the UK in the 1970s and which were quite successful in achieving good outcome for the youth in their care. Best of luck with your advocacy.

Susan Barnes | 28 March 2017  

The US 2 party (political) system has a perverse funding regime and the most prisoners per capita. We have blundered down the same path despite knowing prevention is better than cure in human and financial terms. Alas our governments also succumb to an artificially short budgetary cycle causing deferral (and perpetual multiplication) in the cost of worthwhile initiatives. This political and budgetary construct blocks social progress in our democratic system because everything we legislate and fund is relentlessly driven to the short-term. Whether our major parties are ready or not we seem to be transitioning to multi-party decision making. Edward's comments about Denmark are pertinent because Scandinavian parties can't expect to govern in their own right requiring them to maintain influence within coalitions by developing (and delivering) longer term plans that constituents see as beneficial. Here, voter discontent is leading to the emergence of more splinter parties and independent candidates. Providing coherent proposals to these new politicians will enable them to wield more influence upon government decisions and potentially lead us closer to an electoral reality of government for people instead of trying to rule the people. Until we can accept compromise as the norm these reforms seem almost unattainable.

Brian Ellis | 29 March 2017  

Terry proposes a plan worth serious consideration! I work with young people and know that if you take away any person's power you invite opposition/conflict.

Judith O'Farrell | 30 March 2017  

This is thoughtful and pragmatic, centres as it does upon good therapeutic practice, supervision and educational structures.

Marie Bourke | 30 March 2017  

Similar Articles

Marr withers 'White Queen' Pauline

  • Irfan Yusuf
  • 05 April 2017

Hanson doesn't pretend to be religious. Her anti-Islam agenda isn't inspired by some rightwing evangelical passion like Danny Nalliah's nor by a conservative moralistic Catholicism like Cory Bernardi's. But she clearly can feel the pulse of many in the electorate who worry about terrorism and national security. Hanson's politics really only work when there is a 'them' for 'us' to worry about. But where does she get this idea that Islam is not a religion but an ideology?


Tackling wealth inequality through justice reinvestment

  • Ann Deslandes
  • 31 March 2017

Australia was rated as the top destination for millionaire migrants in 2016 for the second year in a row. Meanwhile the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveal high correlations between prison entrance and indicators of entrenched poverty and discrimination. If we want our system for justice to amount to something more than a mirror of our inability to distribute wealth and opportunity evenly, we need to address the undeniable role wealth inequality has in putting people in prison.