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Locking up kids is not youth justice

As the Shadow Minister for Corrections and Justice, I want Tasmania to be the safest place to live. Everyone wants to live in safer communities, with fewer home break-ins, fewer assaults, less violence and less crime.

While there is no doubt people need to be held accountable for their offending behaviour, the truth is that until we start addressing the root causes of crime, we won’t see crime rates go down.

The number of people in prisons across the country has more than tripled in the past three decades, and Tasmania is no different, with the prison population ballooning since the Liberal government came to power back in 2014.

Despite this, there has not been a proportionate reduction in crime. It is clear that simply locking people up is not reducing crime and is failing our communities. And nowhere is this more evident than in the youth justice system.

The sad reality is that at the moment, most young people who have spent time at the Ashley Youth Detention Centre end up going on to later spend time in the adult justice system including being incarcerated at Risdon.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released last year found that the proportion of young people in Tasmania released from sentenced supervision who returned within 12 months was around 60 per cent, and the proportion of young people with more than one supervised sentence was sitting at almost half.

There is clearly something very wrong with a youth justice system that sees this kind of trajectory.

Evidence shows that if someone’s first interaction with the criminal justice system is later than 14 years of age, the less likely that person is to go on to further offending. We must also not overlook the fact that young people who end up in the youth justice system have often had serious experiences of childhood trauma and have spent time in the out-of-home-care system.

Multiple reports over the past few decades have found that people who were physically abused during childhood can display higher rates of violent, property and total offending than non-abused offenders.

As the Custodial Inspector has said, the primary objective of the youth justice system is to reduce young people’s re-offending. But clearly it is broken. It is vital that the right action is taken to address that and give our young people the second chance they deserve to turn their lives around.

There have been increasing public accounts of horrific abuse of children and young people over decades at Ashley Youth Detention Centre, as well as allegations of a workplace culture rife with bullying and harassment. These increasing public accounts have made the calls to close Ashley Youth Detention Centre louder and clearer.

The Premier has committed to closing Ashley and replacing it with two purpose-built, smaller youth detention facilities – one in the north and one in the south.

He has also talked about delivering a therapeutic justice model, which includes education and mental health support.

This is the right thing to do.

However we must acknowledge that a functioning youth justice system must recognise that addressing youth offending is about more than just punishment. We also need more specialized and targeted youth support for young people facing court, such as Victoria has with specialist lawyers and judges, along with a specialist mental health clinic.

And we need to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

What also must be a priority from here is to deal with the root causes of crime in the adult criminal justice system. The justice system must be responsive to these root causes of crime such as poverty, disadvantage, trauma and abuse. Until we do, we will not see crime rates begin to go down.

We must equip courts with the ability to impose penalties that actually help reduce crime. Things like building on the existing drug treatment orders that can be imposed in our courts currently, by legislating for increased diversionary treatment programs such as mental health programs, parenting programs and other diversionary programs that steer people away from offending behaviour.

Everyone deserves a second chance – especially our young people – and these are steps that can and should be taken in Tasmania, to provide the help and support young people to have productive and happy lives.

Ella Haddad is the Shadow Attorney-General and Labor spokesperson for Corrections and Justice.

this article was originally published October 6, 2021

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