Juvenile Justice: The Need for a National Review and a National Approach
Juvenile justice is a polarising issue around Australia with the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia currently grappling with headline issues concerning youth crime.
Most recently in Western Australia, four youth custodial officers were badly injured when youths at the Banksia Hill detention centre reportedly climbed onto the roof, taking masonry and metal off the building and throwing it.
The Premier has condemned the actions of those youths involved. Youth justice advocates say the appalling conditions, and the violence behind closed doors at Banksia Hill are what drives this kind of behaviour.
Class action against Banksia Hill
A class action brought by more than 500 youths who spent time at Banksia Hill is currently before the Australian Federal Court. In court documents it’s alleged that a girl with severe autism was locked in solitary confinement for more than seven months. It’s likely we will hear more similar stories. The case is likely to take up to three years.
In the meantime, the Government has taken a hardline stance against the individuals allegedly involved in the latest riots at Banksia Hill, saying that it will introduce measures to ensure that youths are removed from youth detention as soon as they turn 18, and finish their sentences in an adult prison.
Premier McGowan said: "You can vote, you can go to war, you can go to a pub. You're an adult. So, in my view if you're an adult you should go to an adult prison.”
Many would argue that this is a fair course of action. Anyone who is charged with a criminal offence and is over 18 years old, faces the adult criminal justice system, and a potential prison sentence to be served in an adult prison.
Anyone younger than 18 years of age charged with a criminal offence allegedly committed when they were under the age of 18 years , is dealt with in the Children’s Court, and if the court determines that they must spend time in custody (and they are still under the age of 18 years at the time of sentence) they are, in Western Australia, sent to Banksia Hill – the state's only juvenile facility.
Banksia Hill has been heavily criticised for its punitive measures behind closed doors, as well as the condition of the facilities, which in some areas are reportedly run down, dirty and broken.
The debate about ‘locking up children’
None of this, however, mitigates the long and ongoing debate about raising the age of criminal responsibility in Australia, which is 10 years of age. Many countries have raised the age of culpability to 14 years.
Other issues concerning juvenile crime and justice
Other issues around juvenile crime and justice are whether parents should be held accountable for the crimes committed by their children, and whether juvenile detention actually works to deter crime or whether it in fact traumatises children and creates life-long criminals. While some children do enter community-based detention or rehabilitation programs, many still end up ‘behind bars’.
Certainly some of the practices of restraint, with multiple (adult) officers holding down a single youth, including the controversial ‘hog tie’ restraint, along with the use of solitary confinement at Banksia Hill need to be examined and reviewed.
Consideration also needs to be given to the number of children who present with cognitive disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as well as other behavioural issues and whether the specialist skills are available within the system to understand these youths.
Justice for communities threatened by youth crime
While many say we just shouldn’t lock up children, that’s not the clear and definitive answer. Communities subjected to youth crime deserve to have a sense of safety restored to their neighbourhoods and also deserve to have justice delivered in line with community expectations.
Areas such as Broome and Derby here in Western Australia, are fighting a battle against youth crime that shows no sign of abating. More than 300 children have been picked up by police in the past 12 months.
Recently the state government pledged $40 million in additional funding to address youth crime in Western Australia, which has grown steadily worse over the past two years. It is no secret that the WA government doesn’t have a great track record in dealing with youth offenders.
But this is not an issue confined to Western Australia – we really need to address youth crime nationally, and consider ways to deter our youths from taking the criminal path, as well as consider better ways to deal with those who break the law.
A growing body of research shows that many youth offenders respond better to rehabilitation – but to date Australian governments have been slow to adopt this approach in any major way.
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PLEASE NOTE: The material in this blog post is for informational use only and should not be construed as legal advice. For answers to your questions regarding this or other topics, please contact a professional legal representative.