The Importance of a Rehabilitative Youth Justice System’


Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am delighted to bring this matter of public importance in my name before the Assembly today.

I care deeply about the young people of this territory, including those who find themselves in trouble. The existence of youth justice systems, separate to adult corrections, acknowledges that there are important differences between adults and children when it comes to offending. Young people are works in progress. Their brains and still developing, and they don’t always understand what they are doing. I feel reasonably confident that every one of us can remember doing something when young that, in retrospect, was stupid, silly or even dangerous.

Of course, not everything that a young person does wrong is a crime, but some things are. And when that happens and the person is apprehended, what happens next becomes extremely important. As noted in a 2016 publication by Harvard University’s Kennedy School, quote, ‘most youth will age out of challenging behaviors if they do not experience the trauma and adverse conditions that convert normal, transitory risk-taking and impulsive behaviors into deeply embedded identity’.[1] This means, Madam Speaker, that most youth who encounter the criminal justice system can be successfully rehabilitated as long as that system is functioning correctly. This is why we allow young offenders to go forward unhindered by a criminal record.

Unfortunately, when a youth justice system doesn’t function the way that it needs to, the exact opposite can happen. Instead of being helped through what should be merely a phase, kids can be seriously harmed by the system. Sometimes this leaves us with permanently wounded adults, and sometimes it results in what the Harvard University report calls a ‘deeply embedded identity’. In other words, youth justice done poorly can become a training exercise for adult corrections. That, Madam Speaker, is a tragedy.

Sadly, the ACT’s Labor-Greens Government has a long and troubling record of significant failures in its delivery of youth justice. A 2005 Human Rights Commission audit of the former Quamby Youth Detention Centre found a string of worrying issues. Staff complained that they lacked access to adequate training, and understaffing was hindering the centre’s ability to function. The Human Rights Commissioner found that detainees were experiencing long lockdowns where they were not let out of their rooms. She also raised concerns about the use of segregation in the centre, about the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, about lack of access to visits by family, and so forth.

In partial response, Labor and the Greens determined to build a new detention centre that would help address these human rights concerns. Instead, Madam Speaker, these issues merely moved from Quamby to the new Bimberi Youth Justice Centre. If we look only at what we know about Bimberi from 2019, we have complaints by staff about lack of access to adequate training, and I understand that the centre is again experiencing significant understaffing issues. This has, once again, led to long periods of ‘operational lockdown’, with detainees sometimes spending up to 22 hours per day confined to their rooms.

This has impacted on the provision of face-to-face educational services. It has also resulted in families sometimes being turned away from visiting their children. Only four days ago, the Barr Government was forced to apologise to a 17-year-old Aboriginal girl after she had been held at Bimberi in isolation for two months – two months, Madam Speaker! Whilst incarcerated, she also had to suffer the indignity of having her Indigenous artwork and publications removed from her possession.[2]

I have focused my comments above on our detention centre, but the problems extend far beyond the walls of Bimberi. Those opposite, Madam Speaker, have a commitment on paper to divert young offenders away from the courts, but at the same time, the Barr Government has woefully underfunded diversion options. Police officers and magistrates in the Children’s Court who wish to refer young offenders directly into diversion programs know that in many cases those young people will instead just be added to very long waiting lists.

By any account, Madam Speaker, this is not a rehabilitative youth justice system. I fully expect the minister to tell us all that it is. She will use nice-sounding words when she does so. But the reality is that youth, parents, community service providers, police, magistrates, and youth workers all know that our youth justice system is failing. Thankfully, not all young people are slipping through the cracks. Some of them are getting the help they need. But far too many are not. And those paying the price are the young people themselves, their families and the community at large. Because when we miss the opportunity to genuinely help a young offender, we risk creating a wounded adult who will carry lifelong trauma. We risk creating repeat offenders whose actions will burden our community. We end up with an overcrowded jail.

In contrast, Madam Speaker, we can and should be doing much better. As the Royal Commission into youth detention in the Northern Territory pointed out, Scotland has a population more than twelve times greater than the ACT’s, and yet they have only 24 young offenders in secure detention.[3] If we replicated this kind of success here in Canberra, it means that we would have only one or two young people in Bimberi. Instead, we have a youth detention facility containing both sentenced detainees and remandees who are experiencing long lockdowns and isolation, lacking face-to-face learning opportunities, and on occasion lacking access to their families. What we have instead is waiting lists for intensive diversionary programs for young offenders, who in many cases continue to offend, increasing the likelihood that this will become a persistent pattern in their lives.

In contrast, Madam Speaker, a genuinely rehabilitative youth justice system provides a range of diversions and dispositional alternatives, ‘especially community-based and family centred programs that are proven to work with young people who have serious problems’.[4] Such an expanded array of alternatives gives magistrates ‘better options for matching youth needs and the degree of supervision needed with effective options’.[5] To quote the Harvard University report, ‘Research confirms that there is no intervention that is more effective when delivered in an institutional setting than when delivered in a community-based one’.[6] Where possible, evidence-based family intervention models should be emphasised because, quoting the Harvard report again, ‘a family is the best places for kids’.[7]

When it is necessary to keep young offenders in a secure facility, this facility should be characterised by ‘high quality, rigorous programming throughout the day’, and this programming should be designed to ‘boost [young people’s] educational, social and emotional development’.[8] This is not possible, Madam Speaker, when poor planning and poor execution on the part of this territory’s current government have resulted in a detention facility where understaffing results in children being locked in their rooms up to 22 hours per day. It is simply not possible. I am deeply concerned for the mental health and wellbeing of young detainees in this territory. Imagine being kept in isolation for two months! We have laws that prevent people from treating animals this poorly, Madam Speaker.

We need a genuinely rehabilitative youth justice system in this territory. We need a broad range of funded diversionary programs that give kids the best chance to turn their lives around and avoid becoming adult offenders. We need a secure facility that is adequately staffed and effectively provides the intensive programming that young detainees need. We need a system that recognises the importance of the family in the rehabilitation of young people and strategically taps into the strength of the family in both its community-based options and when dealing with those who must be detained. To accept anything less is to allow young people, their families and our entire community to pay a terrible price. Thank you.

[1] Patrick McCarthy, Vincent Schiraldi, and Miriam Shark, ‘The Future of Youth Justice: a community-based alternative to the youth prison model’, Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Oct. 2016, p. 18.

[2] https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6424910/territory-apologises-to-aboriginal-girl-who-was-isolated-for-two-months-at-bimberi/

[3] Report of the Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, vol. 2B, chap. 19, pp. 410–11.

[4] McCarthy et al., ‘The Future of Youth Justice’, pp. 19–20.

[5] Ibid., p. 20.

[6] Ibid., p. 22.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 24.

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