With news reports of youth gangs and Operation Mandrake you could be forgiven for thinking that youth crime is on the increase. It is not. The trend is downwards. Over a ten year period to 2005 the fall in police apprehensions was 39 per cent. You could be forgiven for believing that young people who commit offences will do so again. Most do not.The implications are clear. Instead of addressing the problems some groups of young people face we would be adding to them by bringing them into the youth justice system for first and minor offences.
Most young people in South Australia are never in trouble with the police. In 2005, only 0.5 per cent of young people aged 10 to 17 years were apprehended by police. More than half of these did not warrant a court appearance.
For the most part, we have long accepted that we would treat young people as a special category when it comes to criminal justice in recognition of their underdeveloped moral reasoning.
Indeed it was South Australia that led the way in this country with the Children’s Act aged 10 to 13 are presumed to not be fully capable of understanding their actions unless a court can prove otherwise.
There is growing evidence that delays in moral reasoning will continue in to your early 20s and some jurisdictions have extended the principle of different treatment accordingly.
In SA there is a separate Court. The steadily falling youth crime rate is testament to a mostly good youth justice system.
That is why the recent proposals to change legislation so that young offenders are treated more harshly, including defining the offences when juveniles will face the adult court system, are so worrying. They are abrupt reactions to problems that have been with us for a long time and which, largely, we have handled sensibly.
We do well at steering first time offenders away from their second or third offence with crime prevention strategies, and cautions or family conferences following police apprehension. What we don’t want to do now is to counteract this success by widening the channel into the criminal justice system. Introducing anti-social behaviour orders, public shaming and mandatory sentencing could do just that.
Give someone a label, especially a young person, and they will live up to it. Becoming known in the neighbourhood as an “offender” or a “hoon” sticks hard and fast.
In the UK having an “Asbo” or anti-social behaviour order has become something of a badge of honour. Almost half the Asbos in the UK are breached at least once. A highly disproportionate number are imposed on black or Asian young people and the BritishInstitute for Brain Injured Children reported that 35 per cent of the orders were imposed on young people with a disability such as Tourette syndrome, autism or Aspergers syndrome.
The more vexing problem is how to stop that small minority, around 8 per cent, who persist in offending. Out of anger, it is tempting to punish and punish again. If your goal is to stop further crime however then brutalising young offenders, or any offenders, will defeat this.
Most repeat offenders are familiar with brutal environments and have experienced rejection, isolation, failure and cruelty most of their lives. Imprisonment can be a badge of honour, too, among some groups.
As many as 60 per cent of incarcerated young people are reported to be at risk of significant mental health problems.
There is little sympathy for young people who commit crime but it is not sympathy they need. We could instead offer, as other states and countries do, medium or low security facilities that focus on re-integration to the community rather than punishment.
We could ensure that our programs in detention centres deal with substance use, mental illness, post-abuse trauma and learning difficulties. We could introduce sentencing conferences that bring the young person’s family and community into the decisions about consequences and addressing causes of re-offending.
There are many effective alternatives to ongoing imprisonment. If we had tried these first, the call for longer imprisonment may be acceptable.
We have not and it is not.
(First published in The Advertiser 23 March 2007.)