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Sentencing young offenders as adults won't make us safer

Opinion

The State Government’s latest ‘tough on crime’ measure targeting young offenders is likely to be counterproductive, writes youth advocate Anne Bainbridge.

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A lot has been said about young offenders in the media lately – including a seemingly endless number of reports about systemic abuse within youth justice facilities around the country – and that has reignited debate about what should happen to young people who commit crimes.

The question of what penalties should apply to young people who have committed a serious offence is complex and often divisive but you’ll get no argument from me that some offences warrant jail time – especially if that crime results in the death or injury of a member of the public. Young people are subject to the law and should be held to account for their actions.

There are however, separate laws and systems for young people and adults and there’s a good reason for that, namely that children and young people are not considered as mature as adults.

Psychologists tell us that children and young people’s brains are still developing; that changes during puberty lead young people in search of excitement and reward; and that the functions of impulse control, planning ahead and risk avoidance have not fully matured.

The South Australian Young Offenders Act (1993) recognises the developmental stage of young offenders and makes provision for the “…care, correction and guidance necessary for their development into responsible and useful members of the community and the proper realisation of their potential”. In other words, the main focus of youth justice is rehabilitation.

Despite a downward trend in youth offending in South Australia since 2008, the state government is proposing an amendment to the Act that will see children and young people sentenced as adults in certain circumstances. Attorney-General, John Rau has said that current criminal sentencing laws are inadequate when dealing with serious repeat offenders and don’t reflect community expectations. He also said that repeat offenders have “lost the right” to benefit from the rehabilitative focus of the Act.

Arrest, detention, and imprisonment of children and young people should be used only as a measure of last resort…

Sentencing children and young people as adults will likely mean longer sentences but research suggests longer sentences have little to no effect on the rate of re-offending and in fact, can increase the likelihood of re-offending. Take away the rehabilitative function of the Act and it’s difficult to see how the proposed changes will reduce offending and lead to safer communities.

A range of contributing factors impact offending including family violence, abuse and neglect, substance abuse, mental health issues, and socioeconomic disadvantage. One in five children and young people in secure care are under the Guardianship of the Minister and almost half (47.9%) of children and young people in secure care identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. These statistics are concerning and demonstrate the social and systemic drivers of offending are clearly not being addressed.

It is a fact that most offending committed by young people is transitory, with the vast majority of young people maturing out of criminal behaviour. Arrest, detention, and imprisonment of children and young people should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. And with over half of young people released from sentenced detention returning to another period of sentenced supervision, it would appear that those who re-offend have not received the care and guidance necessary to become productive members of society.

Focussing on the imprisonment of children and young people at the expense of policy and programs that seek to enable young people to avoid the youth justice system altogether would appear to be counterproductive.

Investing in prevention and early intervention services and programs whose primary aim is to strengthen families and communities while also addressing mental health, drug and alcohol use, family violence and dysfunction and the experience of disadvantage, has a much greater chance of reducing offending behaviour in the longer term.

In other words, the best way to deal with crime is to prevent it. Provision of evidence-informed diversionary and rehabilitation programs both within and external to detention are much more likely to result in less crimes being committed, less victims and are a much better use of taxpayer dollars.

Anne Bainbridge is the Executive Director of the Youth Affairs Council of South Australia.

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