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Spare the rod and respect the child



In recent months, youth crime has been much in the news, with stories of home invasions, car theft, and gangs receiving publicity. In response, some State Governments and Federal politicians have acted in ways that will affect not only young people who commit the most serious crimes but will also put at risk the future of many others. The responses neglect the human reality of the children concerned. When that is done, the consequences both for those immediately affected and for society are bad.

The government responses all focused on increasing penalties. In Victoria, the Government postponed its commitment to implement the Youth Justice Strategic Plan that it had already accepted.

The Government will now maintain the requirement that access to bail for certain crimes may be given only for compelling reasons. The Strategic Plan dictated that bail could be refused only for compelling reasons. Under the existing law many children have been held on remand while they await trial and then are released after trial, even when convicted, because the sentencing guidelines for young people recognise they should be sentenced with different considerations to adults. The Government also introduced a trial of licensing courts to make wearing ankle bracelets a condition of bail.

In New South Wales, bail will be denied to many repeat offenders, and two years may be added to the sentences of those who publicised their stealing cars breaking into houses. The Government also refused to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

In Queensland, a new Youth Remand Centre for children is being built to cope with the increasing number of children refused bail after changes to law in 2023.

In federal politics the leaders of the Liberal and the National Party put forward a private bill for young offenders to face a two-year jail term for publicising gang activities on social media and also proposed work camps in remote areas under the guidance of police and military personnel as an alternative to detention.  

These actions are designed to respond to some distinctive recent patterns of criminal behaviour by young people. They include groups of youths stealing and hijacking cars, breaking into houses and intimidating residents, and acting violently. These incidents cause anxiety to people in the affected areas. The media also highlight and dramatise them in a way that feeds anxiety. Police have also noted a performative element in the behaviour of young people. Many people have filmed and put on social media their actions. The police also complain that people whom they apprehend re-offend soon after being granted bail. State Governments decisions have been taken in response to this situation.


'The proper response is to invest in communities living in disadvantage, provide coordinated health and family services, and to respond to misbehaviour through programs designed to build responsibility, not to punish and ostracise.'


In reflecting on such dramatic situations we should always begin by attending to the human beings involved in them. They include the direct victims of these actions and the community made anxious by them. It is common ground that governments and their police forces are responsible for the safety of the community. They must develop strategies for preventing such criminal behaviour and for apprehending those responsible for it. It is also common ground that the perpetrators must be brought to recognise their responsibility, and that some few young ringleaders may need to be detained in order to protect the community. The form of detention, however, should be directed at changing behaviour so that they take responsibility. These steps recognise the human reality of the injury suffered by those affected by violent crime and are designed to address it.

The response, however, must also recognise the human reality of the young persons involved in illegal behaviour. This means that we must take account of differences between them. Most do not steal cars, break into houses nor act violently. Their bad behaviour is more likely to involve petty theft, drug offences and offensive behaviour. The response to them needs to respect difference.

Respect for the human reality of young persons, too, must involve attending to the evidence about human development. The human brain does not develop fully until the mid-twenties. Children and adolescents, in particular, have limited understanding of the consequences of their actions, limited Impulse control, and are highly susceptible to peer group pressure. Compared to adults, they have limited responsibility, and the response to their behaviour must take account of this difference. Good parenting has always understood this.

Third, respect for the human reality of young persons must also take account of their upbringing. Many children who come under the justice system come from areas of disadvantage with higher levels of exposure to family violence, substance abuse, mental and physical illness and increased exposure to cold and heat, and lower educational and employment opportunity and access to child care and health services Their mental and emotional development as a result is delayed.

Fourth, the treatment of young people who have misbehaved should reflect the evidence gathered about their developmental needs and the effect of different responses on them. This evidence suggests that children who are brought under the justice system experience it as traumatic. We need only to imagine the effect on our own children of being separated from family and friends, remanded and placed in poorly staffed institutions with children from disadvantaged backgrounds and in a peer group culture where antisocial behaviour is prized. Those who are detained are far more likely to reoffend and to graduate to adult jails. This is not surprising. 

These considerations suggest that the least helpful response to misbehaving children will be to take them away from family, subject them to judicial procedures and lock them up in detention centres. That will stunt their growth into mental and emotional maturity, deprive them of role models, and in many cases mean that the only world that they can handle will be a jail.

We should consider the recent initiatives taken by by governments and politicians in the light of that background. The reversal of the onus of proof for giving bail is particularly concerning. It will mean that many vulnerable children with multiple disadvantages will be detained for minor offences before their cases are adjudicated. Many will be held in adult prisons or in crowded watchhouses, separated from their families. These laws about bail and penalties will disadvantage Indigenous children in particular. They will also ensure that even more children graduate to adult prisons and will encourage the pursuit of notoriety.

The proper response is to invest in communities living in disadvantage, provide coordinated health and family services, and to respond to misbehaviour through programs designed to build responsibility, not to punish and ostracise. As for bootcamps, imagine what your own son might have learned by the time he returned home. He would certainly have learned more than his prayers.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Youth Justice, Crime, Detention



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Existing comments

I think we have a serious breakdown in certain parts of our society. This is not general and most families and young people are perfectly functional. Herein we have a clue. We need to bring the dysfunctional families up to scratch. I feel we need to look to the Scandinavian countries, rather than the British penal approach for reform. We also seem to have incompetence in the NT government and dreadful, Third World conditions up there for so many Indigenous Australians. No wonder the Territory is dysfunctional. This needs to be addressed urgently. We have the competence to fix this. It needs the right people.

Edward Fido | 03 April 2024  

How are we supposed to critique other countries when we can't fix a problem in a minority of a thimbleful of people in one of the richest countries in the world?

It's just bizarre. Now, if you were talking about, say, India, sure, the problem involves shifting the conditions of millions of individuals. But, what do we have here? A few thousand maybe? Actually, just a few dozen people in each of several discrete and unrelated pockets of population?

I wonder if there's a concept of the obduracy of small numbers, why a problem involving very few people can be so obstinate.

s martin | 04 April 2024  

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