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Society pays a heavy price for jailing children



Popular opinion is always ambivalent about children. If you say children are the future, show concern for education, deplore the harm done by abuse, and advocate on behalf of needy children, you will get a good hearing.

Scene of abuse at Don DaleBut if you alarm people with story of youth gangs, claim that kids are out of control, and demand that they be locked up, punished severely, deported and subjected to other indignities, you are also likely to win support. We love reassurance that good kids will make for a better future of our society. We are easily made afraid that little monsters will turn the future into a nightmare.

At present fear seem seems to be winning. Throughout Australia harsher penalties are imposed on offenders, including children. They are remanded in custody and not returned to their families. They are included in the adult justice system rather than in child welfare. Governments spend money on new child prisons. Institutional staff give priority to security rather than to rehabilitation, to control rather than to respect, authority rather than to mentoring.

The satisfaction derived from this emphasis on punishment in the treatment of children is fleeting. We may feel momentary relief that a dangerous little villain is being dealt with. But the cost of imprisonment is lasting and heavy: a still malleable child whose path might have changed is stunted in their development and sent to a preparatory school likely to graduate to a lifetime in adult prisons. This is a heavy price to pay in terms of human happiness and the public purse.

The reliance on imprisonment in youth justice inevitably leads to a system in which relations between children and staff are authoritarian and conflictual, facilities are understaffed and crowded, bored and disturbed children are kept in cells, lip service is paid to rehabilitation and morale is low.

These conditions lead to violence, vandalism and to such abuses as those revealed in the photographs from Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. There is momentary public revulsion followed by enquiries that lead to cosmetic change. But the root of the problem — the penal approach to child offending instead of a child welfare focus — remains and reproduces the same conditions.

The summary conclusions on detention by the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory are notable for their straightforward language. They echo the judgments of child workers, doctors, psychologists and x in other parts of Australia, and are worth quoting in full.


"The royal commission exposed the collaboration of government at all levels in the system produced by this policy. It is to be hoped that the reform of the policy will be root and branch and properly financed."


'Over ten years, some children in detention were mistreated, verbally abused, humiliated, isolated or left alone for long periods of time. In some cases they may have been assaulted by staff. Staff ignored the rules, or did not know the rules and the broke the law. Senior people in government knew about this and did nothing. There are young people that have been damaged because of their time in detention.

'Locking kids up does not stop them breaking the law and does not make the community safer. Many kids that end up in detention suffer from trauma and other social and emotional issues. The current system does not help kids with special needs or problems to change their behaviour.

'Juvenile detention centres are not supposed to be like adult prisons.

'All the youth detention facilities the Commission looked at in the Northern Territory were not fit for purpose and should be closed.

'Detention should be the last option for children who are in trouble with the law. Before locking kids, we should be making sure they can do programs and activities that help fix the underlying reasons for their behaviour.

'In some circumstances, young people will need to be placed in a secure facility, but only if they are older than 14.

'In the future, these places should be made especially for young people, with a focus on healing and rehabilitation.'

The photographs at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre revealed the inevitable inner logic of a policy based on detaining children. The royal commission exposed the collaboration of government at all levels in the system produced by this policy. It is to be hoped that the reform of the policy will be root and branch and properly financed, not only in the Northern Territory but in other Australian States. Children's lives depend on it.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, youth detention



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Existing comments

I reckon the parents should be sentenced to mandatory rehab, parenting education and exercises in leadership and role model responsibility.

john frawley | 13 December 2017  

Andrew I agree with everything you say, but how do you change the system? Most often the damage is done in the first seven years when the child's habitual brain map is being set down. Is there a society somewhere in the world that manages adolescent dysfunction in a better way? It seems to me that our leaders are ill equipped to be in charge, they are too concerned with staying in power with personal attacks on each other to the detriment of our vulnerable young people. If the energy that was given to validating same sex marriage was transferred to youth detention and rehabilitation then there would be a hope for change.

Trish Martin | 14 December 2017  

Australia, in a bizarre repeat of history, seems to be reliving its colonial past. The Don Dale Youth Detention Centre would not be out of place in Van Diemen's Land or Norfolk Island. The people sent out in those days often came from broken homes in a socially iniquitous society. There are better ways to deal with young offenders, as in the Scandinavian countries, which has long been known. It would be good if, on some of their expensive overseas taxpayer funded junkets, some of our vastly overpaid politicians looked into these Scandinavian systems. Something needs to be done now, otherwise this seemingly endless replay of the Colonial Penal System will continue. As you point out, our youth remand centres are colleges of further education for a life of crime.

Edward Fido | 15 December 2017  

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