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Issue #1457      2 June 2010

Rise in young people in detention

A review of juvenile justice in NSW has revealed a dramatic increase in juvenile incarceration over the past decade. The government has sought to manage the increase by committing $348.4 million to building more detention centres. The report was critical of this approach, suggesting radical changes in the criminal justice system’s priorities should see a reinvestment of this money in community projects that would enhance justice for young people.

The number of juveniles in detention centres has increased by approximately 50% between 2003-2004 to 2008-2009. The great majority of young people in detention are on remand – having been refused bail before their trial. 78.3% of young people on remand did not go on to receive a sentenced detention order within twelve months. The report also found that Indigenous young people make up 48.5% percent of the sentenced detention population. They also comprise 35.8% of those remanded in custody. Indigenous young people are therefore heavily overrepresented in the juvenile justice system as they only comprise 2.2% of the total NSW population.

Reasons for increasing incarceration

The report identified the law and order approach of the government as largely responsible for the increase in juvenile incarceration. This was evidenced most clearly in the amendments in the Bail Act 1978 that made it more difficult for young people to be granted bail. This undermines the presumption of innocence before being tried and found guilty. Due to changes to bail requirements, the remand rate increased from 3,255 in 2003-2004 to 5,081 in 2007-2008.

Policing was disproportionately directed to young people. Children and young people make up 26% of all persons of interest (i.e. of all ages) proceeded against by NSW Police. The NSW Police effectively divert many of them from offending behaviour through the use of the Young Offenders Act 1997. However, the use of diversionary options is not uniformly applied across all Local Area Commands.

There has been an increasing use of control orders (incarceration) by courts, and this coupled with a significant increase in the use of remand, has seen a significant increase in the numbers in detention. The evidence, both Australian and international, is that detention is counter productive by providing neither a deterrent or reducing re-offending. “Quite simply greater use of detention is not making NSW a safer place”.

The report found that young people who enter the juvenile justice system are likely to have family dysfunction, intellectual disability, poor mental health, dislocation from education, and homelessness. There is substantial evidence that intervening early in the lives of children at risk will divert them from entering the juvenile justice system. “Indigenous overrepresentation is rooted in deep social disadvantage”.

In seeking to improve this situation the review recommends a fundamental rethink of the approach to addressing Indigenous disadvantage. Without new approaches to improving Indigenous social cohesion, overrepresentation will remain a feature of juvenile justice both in NSW and Australia more generally.’

Recommendation for justice reinvestment

The review recommended “justice reinvestment” which involves diverting the $348 million funding from building juvenile justice centres to evidence-based prevention and early intervention programs and services for local communities. The report refers to the experiences with justice reinvestment in a number of states in the US where prison rates have consequently dropped.

The initiatives are based on early intervention and preventative measures, which would have significant long term benefits for the community. However, given that the report indicates that socio-economically disadvantaged communities have higher rates of juvenile incarceration, it is unlikely that justice reinvestment would be a silver bullet. Nonetheless, it provides a refreshing approach, away from the heavy-handed law and order ideology of governments over the past decade.

Not surprisingly, the NSW government has responded to the report that it commissioned by asserting that its current justice policy is consistent with preventing crime. It has ignored the findings of the steady rise in juvenile incarceration rates. The investment in detention centres is likely to continue, and with it a need to house young people between their walls.

The Noetic Group was commissioned by the NSW government to evaluate juvenile justice policy and practice. The report can be found at:  

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