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Youth justice blueprint is in front of our noses

  • 28 May 2019


A little over 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela remarked: 'The true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children.' If the humane, age-appropriate treatment of children and young people is the benchmark we aspire to, Australia continues to fail some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

Two years ago, the nation was collectively outraged by the footage that emerged from Darwin's troubled Don Dale youth detention facility — footage that included people not yet old enough to vote, shackled to mechanical restraint chairs, their heads covered by heavyweight spit hoods. Australia demanded action and it was swift, with the announcement of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

The Royal Commission handed down its final report in November 2017. It contained 227 recommendations spanning the way we should be supporting our children in the community, how we keep children away from the detention system at every opportunity given the detrimental impact it has on development and wellbeing, and what an effective detention system should look like for the very small number of children for whom it is a necessary response.

It looked like a watershed moment for the future of youth justice in Australia, orienting us towards a youth justice system that prioritises the safety and wellbeing of children, acknowledges the multiple and complex disadvantage experienced by so many who get caught up in the system, and focuses on supporting young people to achieve their potential.

Sadly, almost two years later, many of the royal commission's recommendations remain unrealised, in large part due to a lack of funding support by the federal government. In the meantime, youth justice has remained at the crossroads in many other parts of Australia.

We've experienced years of sensationalised media overage about young people getting into trouble and being labelled 'thugs', while our political leaders have responded by pursuing tough-on-crime policies, committing to new detention facilities and largely ignoring the evidence of what works. It's resulted in too many young people in detention centres, including high numbers of young people on remand (meaning they are yet to be convicted of a crime).

Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory have all been dealing with systemic issues including inadequate facility infrastructure and poor support and training for staff who often don't have the necessary skills and experience to perform the challenging job of working with