Sentencing young offenders as adults is fundamentally wrong

photo of Penny Wright
Penny Wright – Guardian for Children and Young People in Care

25 September 2017

Children are not adults. We all understand that. Isn’t that why we don’t let young people vote, drink, or buy cigarettes?

Shortly, parliament will be debating a Government proposal to sentence some young offenders as if they are adults. It is fundamentally wrong for two reasons.

First, it flies against everything we know about young people and their behaviour, both from research and from our own experience. We know that young people take risks and sometimes they misbehave. We know that the immature brain does not have the capacity to fully understand risks and weigh up immediate behaviour against longer-term consequences for themselves or others. Research shows that for many young people the capacity to form an ‘adult’ judgement and control their impulses does not happen until their early twenties, five years after they become an ‘adult’ under most laws.

Our laws recognise this and consciously limit young people’s rights to do certain things, and the penalties we impose on them.  So do other societies like ours. This understanding is also reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Australia has signed.

In South Australia, our own child protection laws, which were updated just a few months ago, reflect that children are not adults. They are based on the principle of promoting the best interests of the child or young person in laws, courts and administration. The government’s proposed Bill explicitly seeks to abandon this principle, and even the idea of rehabilitation, where an offence is sufficiently ‘grave’.

And why? The government says it is to make our community safer. There have been several recent cases with tragic consequences and of course every one of us would want to prevent such events occurring again. The problem is that removing the discretion of judges, and prescribing extreme punishments for young people as if they were adults, may satisfy our desire to punish those responsible, but will not actually make us safer. In fact, they are likely to make such offences more likely.

Statistics tell us clearly that the majority of young offenders do not go on to lead a life of crime.  For most, offending tapers off with age, as family, employment and other interests draw them into safer and more respectable behaviours. There will be people reading this who know that – from their own experience or that of their own kids.

What we do with them, before that tapering off happens, can be crucial. Giving judges the option of directing young offenders into programs that address their criminal behaviour, and support them to be trained and educated and moved away from the causes of their offending, will help bring that about. But compulsory long sentences (up to 20 years) can break any positive connections a young person may have – to family and community and place them in an environment where offending is the norm.

Rather than diversionary programs or short but effective stints in juvenile detention with a strong focus on rehabilitation, long sentences will expose young offenders to a graduate program in violence and criminality in adult prison.  What incentives will they have to engage with rehabilitation programs in youth detention  if mandatory sentences mean that all they can look forward to is the certainty of moving into adult prison later on?  Graduating from adult prison with a criminal record would leave a young adult with few options for a career that does not involve crime.

In a climate of grief and loss it is tempting to venture down a path of anger and revenge. But if this leads to extreme laws which go against evidence and our own understanding of the behaviour of young people, who does it benefit?  If we take that path we will irreversibly damage many young lives and find ourselves living in a community that is actually less safe than the one we enjoy today.

This piece first appeared in The Advertiser on 22 September, 2017.

The Guardian;s submission in response to the draft Statutes Amendment (Youths Sentenced as Adults) Bill 2017 is available as a download.

One Response

  1. I could not agree more. Having managed highly successful prevention programs for young offenders in the UK for over a decade we collected compelling evidence that many of these children do, in fact, ‘grow out’ of their offending. This is facilitated by good prevention work that builds resilience and a sense of responsibility through a focus on the underlying risk factors and a restorative justice approach.
    Everyone understands that tragic outcomes fuel the need for vengeance but hard cases make bad law! And what is being proposed is very bad law indeed that will only lead to lost potential and better criminals. We really have to ask ourselves what is more important – for kids to be harshly punished or for things to get better? In my experience you cannot have both.

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