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Juvenile justice continues to focus on locking up kids rather than providing services that curb crime (2009)

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

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Juvenile justice continues to focus on locking up kids rather than providing services that curb crime

Author: By Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Publication: The Adelaide Advertiser, Page 18 (Wed 30 Sep 2009)

RECENT announcements notwithstanding, there's no getting around the fact that young people in South Australia are being detained in overcrowded and outdated conditions in breach of Australia's human rights obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

About half of these children are Aboriginal.

The appalling conditions in the Magill Youth Training Centre demanded that it be bulldozed.

But we should now seize this opportunity to embrace a new approach that delivers better outcomes both for young offenders and the community at large.

Bricks-and-mortar detention facilities are not the only answer.

We should be using the crisis posed by conditions in the Magill centre to bolster our efforts to stop young people from going into custody in the first place.

It is reprehensible that young people have been detained in these conditions, but it's even more reprehensible that our system of juvenile justice continues to focus on locking up kids rather than providing services that help prevent crime.

But in some parts of the world, an innovative program known as justice reinvestment is turning the well-worn path to detention for many young people on its head.

And if we were open to it, it could very well do the same here.

In essence, justice reinvestment reinvests a portion of the money that would have otherwise been spent on imprisonment into local communities with a high concentration of offenders.

It does this through programs and services that address the underlying causes of crime particular to these communities. In short, this initiative is not just about reforming the criminal justice system; it's about trying to prevent people from getting into crime in the first place.

This approach asks the crucial question: Is imprisonment good value for money?

I'd have to say that, given an average annual cost of about $100,000 a year to detain a young person in Australia, compared with the costs of providing community-based programs such as youth mentoring or drug and alcohol services, imprisonment is not giving us good value for money. After five years as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I remain unconvinced that we achieve anything as a society by putting our young people in detention.

What I am convinced of, however, is that when 90 per cent of these young people reoffend within two years, we're failing in the rehabilitation stakes. So why do we continue to throw good money away after bad?

Where justice reinvestment has been introduced, significant reductions in prison populations and increased investment in social services and community development projects have followed.

South Australia has traditionally been regarded as an innovator in juvenile justice, being one of the first places to introduce youth conferencing and Aboriginal courts.

It's a shame to see this fine reputation sullied nationally and internationally because of an over-reliance on detention to deal with juvenile justice issues.

A trial of justice reinvestment in SA would be a good opportunity for the state to get back its reputation as a leader in good juvenile justice policy, while still maintaining its AAA credit rating.

Our kids are worth investing in. Let's spend money on looking after them rather than locking them up.


  • Countries all over the world continue to grapple with the complexities of juvenile justice.
  • But some places, such as 10 states in the U.S., offer real alternatives that we can learn from.
  • Like South Australia, many of these states were struggling to keep pace with spiralling prison costs, ageing prison infrastructure, overcrowded facilities and competing demands for limited state funding.
  • But with a new approach known as justice reinvestment, which reduces imprisonment and saves the taxpayer money at the same time, things are starting to change.