Youth justice blueprint is in front of our noses



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.

Still from Four Corners report shows sign that says Brisbane Watch House: No Entry, Authorised PersonnelTwo 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 very vulnerable children.


"These stories are a national disgrace — but for those of us who follow youth justice reform closely, not a surprise. It is clear that we have learned nothing from the horrors of Don Dale."


Which brings us to the damning Four Corners report about the treatment of children, including primary school aged children, in the Brisbane City Watch House.

Children as young as ten years old have been detained in police cells designed for adults, often for weeks on end.  We heard about children being denied access to prescribed medications and young girls being detained alongside alleged adult sex offenders. These stories are a national disgrace — but for those of us who follow youth justice reform closely, not a surprise. It is clear that we have learned nothing from the horrors of Don Dale.

With Australia's treatment of children and young people firmly back in the national spotlight, it's time for national leadership. We must urge the federal government to reform our troubled youth justice systems to better support our children and young people to lead fulfilling lives, free of crime.

We can do this by working within the COAG framework to raise the age of criminal responsibility from ten to 14 years across all states and territories, to bring Australia in line with international standards embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

When a ten or 12 year old child comes into contact with the justice system, instead of defaulting to a punitive response, we need to be looking at what has gone wrong in that child's life and how it can be addressed in a way that doesn't jeopardise their future. Such a move is in line with international research that shows young children have not developed the social, emotional and intellectual maturity necessary for criminal responsibility. Ultimately, primary school aged children belong in school, not in prison.

Our federal leaders can also work with states and territories, as well as independent oversight bodies, to ban the use of solitary confinement in youth justice facilities. This practice is dangerous and demeaning, and leads to significant psychological and physical harm, particularly for young people whose brains are still developing. The use of solitary confinement has been key in both the Don Dale and Brisbane Watch House atrocities, and it must be legislated against.

We also want to see the federal government commit to and implement a National Youth Justice Strategy that seeks to address poverty and disadvantage as drivers of crime, diverts children from prison at every possible opportunity and provides access to the opportunities that every Australian child deserves.

Our youth justice systems are at crisis point. Federal leadership must be a priority, but states and territories must commit to effective, evidence-based policies and investments that hold young people to account for their actions and steer them towards better pathways. Investments into mental health services and alternatives to detention are crucial.

We have the blueprint on how to prevent another Don Dale or Brisbane Watch House atrocity — now it's up to our political leaders to show the leadership required to implement it.



Julie EdwardsJulie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services.

Topic tags: Julie Edwards, youth justice, Don Dale



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Existing comments

We could not agree more. Creative, bold and compassionate steps must be taken to interrupt the predictable journey that so many young offenders embark on with the justice system. Here in Darwin we have a new youth justice regime after 4 corners did another number on us before jumping back on the plane, but is it any better? Youth crime is still a massive problem. Go hard or go soft - the missing element seems to be strong and compassionate intensive support for individuals and families as an alternative to incarceration, but with enough clout to enforce participation. Too often now, the kids would rather do a week behind bars than months of diversion. Carrot or stick?
Matthew | 29 May 2019

Julie reminds us to look at what has gone wrong in a life when we are considering the consequences for certain actions. Could it not be a reminder to think clearly and compassionately in many ,"crimes" to the factors that have contributed. Mental health issues , lack of supports for the family, negative and damning media reports, poverty ,homelessness all may contribute. An old friend used to say " There but for the grace of God go I. "That expression always stopped me in my tracks and engendered first a sense of gratitude , but then most of all a degree of understanding and compassion for the perpetrators of the alleged "crime". Children as young as 10 being put into detention, either in Australia or on Manus Island. Disgraceful. Withholding mental health services and all that implies , to children and their parents. Disgraceful.
Celia | 29 May 2019

Great contribution Julie. I worked with kids in trouble for much of my career and rarely if ever came across a young offender who had a positive relationship with a dad. When I first saw the movie ‘The Castle’ I couldn’t believe that Darryl Kerrigan, the loving dad, could have a son in prison! It just doesn’t happen in real life! In stark contrast their mums turn up in court, visit their kids in detention and are always the ones to make a media comment if required. The absence of fathers with kids in trouble has always struck me as something quite profound. It’s a feature of our justice system that society is unwilling to face up to and is seemingly unable to tackle the related social policies that will make a difference. Particularly in relation to positive fathering, gender role modelling and mentoring, tied to much earlier intervention.
michael kelly | 29 May 2019

Julie, Sad, but none of your story surprises me. Dysfunctional families, high youth unemployment are issues our society and the pollies we elect, just put under the carpet. Very much a case of blame the victim. Sadly we are going back to the days written about by Charles Dickens. Neo liberal governments just don't care!
Gavin O'Brien | 29 May 2019

Michael, your comment reaffirms my politically incorrect belief that gender equality does not require that women are elevated to equality with men but that men are elevated to equality with women!
john frawley | 31 May 2019

Michael. I should have added that the problem for the children is simply poor paternal parenting. Time for our society to stop side stepping the truth for fear of criticism.
john frawley | 03 June 2019


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