Daniel Feher | The Drum | 17 August 2011
1. An uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution;
2. A state of oblivion;
3. The feeling experienced when held on remand.
Throughout Australian jurisdictions detention is considered an option of last resort in combating juvenile offending, with custodial sentences imposed only when other diversionary measures have failed.
Despite this principle, the number of youths remanded in detention has nearly tripled since 1981, with 60 per cent of young people in Australian detention centres held without sentencing. This figure points to a need for better youth justice programs to keep kids out of lockup, and underlines the greater problem of how to combat chronic juvenile offending by at-risk youths.
According to the recently released Doing Time – Time For Doing report, there are currently over 1,300 minors in detention around Australia, with over half identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. For many it is not their first time "in" and sadly, it may not be their last either. In 90 per cent of juvenile offence cases, the kids learn from their mistakes and exit the system, however it is the remaining 10 per cent who continue as chronic reoffenders that are the main cause for concern. These youths return to custody because of gaps and inconsistencies in post-release service provision that see them released back into the community without the adequate support they need to take control of their lives.
The media frequently leads us to believe that these so-called "hardened" youths are pathological criminals - villainous, defiant and perpetually "up to no good". However research spurred by these reports shows that the reality of these children's situations is far more complex, sad and unfortunate. Most have experienced some form of poverty, abuse or neglect, and many have been exposed to criminal behaviour and drug use from an early age, frequently through immediate family or close relatives. Suffering from a lack of care and positive role models, juvenile detainees often describe being forced to grow up quickly from an unreasonably early age and in some cases take care of younger siblings. In many cases this leads to a prematurely heightened sense of independence that causes a disconnect with the child's social and behavioural development and schooling. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees in particular describe a loss of culture and identity, and subsequently a feeling of not belonging and alienation.
Over half of the young people in custody have mental health issues and more than two-thirds have a substance abuse problem that, in many cases, began before they were teenagers. Comorbidity in mental health and substance abuse problems is particularly prevalent, and the majority of detainees with a mental health problem will also have a history of drug use and self-medication. This is just a brief snapshot of the challenges this cohort of kids face in turning their lives around. It also highlights the appallingly negative progress that has been made in combating Aboriginal overrepresentation in the justice system since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 20 years ago.
Compounding these challenges is the strain of incarceration. Results from a recent study by the Australian Institute of Criminology mirrored overseas findings that juvenile detention has no specific deterrent effect, and also pointed to other findings indicating a negative long-term impact on employment prospects. Led by veteran director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics, Dr Don Weatherburn, the study cited a considerable body of research indicating that custodial environments are in themselves criminogenic, serving to harden young detainees and make them increasingly difficult to rehabilitate.
The financial costs of juvenile detention are also substantial, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year for very little gain. Tasmania allocates the most on its juvenile inmates at $800 per child, per day, while Victoria is the thriftiest, at $408, with the other states and territories falling in between. Whichever figure you back, it remains a considerable sum to keep a youth in limbo for just one day.
With research condemning juvenile incarceration, and the costs involved becoming increasingly difficult to justify, it is not surprising that findings from government and community welfare organisations are calling for a shift towards intensive support programs instead. The South Australian Social Inclusion Unit's To Break The Cycle report and Mission Australia's publication Juvenile Justice Snapshot are just two of many recent calls for action. They recommend empowering at-risk youths with a sense of control over their lives and minimising the time they spend in custody, with the findings stimulating a range of community, government and non-government initiatives across Australia in dealing with the issue, many of which are reporting high success rates.
By offering family assistance, employment experience and dedicated support from positive role models, schemes such as the Intensive Supervision Program in NSW and the YMCA and Victorian Government's joint initiative, the Bridge Project, have seen dramatic reductions in reoffending by participating youths. Another program currently being piloted in South Australia by the Red Cross is Step Out.
Twenty at-risk young people in contact with the South Australian justice system are taking part in the Step Out project which began in December last year. The project provides the youths and their families with support and guidance from up to four peer mentors, selected to be people the participants can relate to and be positively influenced by, and who can provide trust and impartiality.
Like the Bridge Project and the Intensive Supervision Program, a key objective of the Step Out initiative is to break down the stigma of alienation and social exclusion reported by juveniles who have been through the justice system. The peer mentors encourage the youths to reconnect with their families, cultures and communities, and work towards personal goals, with an emphasis on fostering initiative. Kids in the program are referred to as "participants" rather than "young offenders" and details of their past offending behaviour is only discussed where it poses a risk to mentors and staff involved in the initiative.
As with its interstate counterpart initiatives, the Step Out program is already showing signs of positive outcomes, despite the project's infancy. Participants in Step Out are remaining out of custody and in the community for longer, the change coinciding with their entry into the program. Promising results and indicators such as these give hope to the possibility of widespread policy change in rehabilitating young offenders, the next step being to change the way the public views the issue.
A key challenge in reducing the rate of recidivist juvenile offending is educating our often punitive public. An increasingly salient feature in the justice process is the influence of public opinion on a course of action that historically involved only three relevant parties - the state, the victim and the offender. This transformation of the public from an observer to an influence on the justice process needs to be monitored, particularly with a report by the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council (among other studies) showing that public perceptions of criminal trends are regularly at odds with statistical figures. Even more concerning is how many of us source our decision-making information from the mainstream media, whose purpose is often to entertain rather than inform (not to mention sensationalise), and the influence this is having on juvenile justice policymaking through penal populism.
Ultimately, juvenile offending is a whole of community issue that will not be solved by increasing the number of kids remanded. Community-based intervention programs are making a difference because they empower at-risk youths, not incapacitate them, while bringing them back into positive contact with the community. It is these pilot programs that need to be invested in, studied, and built on as the foundations of better policymaking in juvenile justice. By providing role models, family support, education and a sense of belonging, these initiatives create a path out of limbo and back into the community for kids who often feel that they have burnt their bridges for good.
Daniel Feher is a freelance writer and former South Australian government public relations officer.