Juvenile detention needs to change for our kids

OPINION

By ABBEY HALTER

There is a clear and staggering link between youths who end up in the criminal justice system and histories of childhood maltreatment, including being in the child protection system.

Specifically, maltreatment coinciding with abuse can have a major influence on the development of criminal behaviour in youths, as trauma can impact their development. Experiencing trauma at a young age can lead to extremely poor coping skills, including being unable to self-regulate and being predisposed to substance abuse. It’s factors such as these that lead many wayward and traumatised youths into run-ins with the criminal justice system.

However, the criminal justice system’s tendency to place punishment over rehabilitation doesn’t adequately deal with the traumatic experiences of young people in its care, resulting in at-risk youth being unable to be reintegrated due to emotional and mental instability. For youth in juvenile care, there needs to be both physical and psychosocial interventions in order to give sufficient support through the transition to adulthood, forming healthy relationships, education and finding employment.

Even the State Government admits as much, as detailed in their youth justice strategy released last December. It details a shift in strategy towards crime prevention and prison alternatives for young people. Youth Minister Di Farmer said the “evidence shows that by placing youth offenders in detention, they are more likely to re-offend”.

The State Government’s youth justice strategy report showed that:

  • within 12 months more than 80 per cent of youth returned to detention centres
  • 60 per cent of young people who have come into contact with the justice system had a diagnosed or suspected mental health/behavior disorder
  • 50 per cent of young people had been involved with the child protective services
  • One of five were homeless

Without access to proper intervention strategies and support youth re-offending will continue to remain at an astounding rate. Trauma-informed and holistic intervention programs should be available to all youth offenders, including evidence-based approaches such as Functional Family Therapy, Multisystemic Therapy and Multidimensional Therapeutic Foster Care. These programs aim to change behavioural patterns within families with group and individual therapy sessions, as well as psychotherapeutic treatment for maltreated children.

Studies conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies released in 2018 show that maltreatment after the age of 12 has a more consequential effect in offending behaviour. Homeless youth who are unable to support themselves also tend to engage in survival behaviours. These can include theft, contact with drugs and any other risky behaviours in order to provide food and shelter for themselves.

In 2018 the Palaszczuk Government announced a new youth justice strategy in alignment with the recommended intervention therapies. Their aim was to reduce youth re-offending by 5 per cent before 2022 by focusing on crime prevention and alternatives to the juvenile prison system.

“We can’t continue to keep doing the same things over and over and expect a different result,” Minister Di Farmer said at the time. “We need to work with families and communities, engaging them as part of the solution.”

Queensland Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington expressed her disapproval of the strategy, claiming the government’s response was too lenient. She said her party’s solution would be to build another youth detention center to deal with the overcrowding because, “if you do the crime, you should be doing the time.”

This disappointing response from the Opposition reveals a lack of understanding, compassion for youth offenders and promotes damaging stereotypes that continue to perpetuate an untrue narrative.

The studies are clear: young people dealing with abusive or neglectful environments need to be supported to stop the pattern leading to criminal behaviour, and support and rehabilitation services need to be available to reduce the risk of re-offending.

 

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