Why authority figures need to focus less on punishment and more on helping kids get their lives back on track
The current youth justice system in Australia has proven ineffective, with damning reports revealing the serious harm and mistreatment caused by putting our children behind bars. Yet, authorities and leaders continue to advocate for more jail time and more punishment for our troubled youth.
The Queensland government, as a recent example, announced a suite of tough new measures to be introduced to parliament including increased police powers, trial of GPS tracking devices, stricter rules around bail and more, in an attempt to tackle youth crime. At the same time, spotlight on our troubled youth is wide-reaching with states including Victoria and Tasmania reporting high rates of youth crime.
It is important to look into the problem, and ask the questions, Who are these kids? Why are they engaging in crime? Are they at-risk? How can we better support their needs? Because as a society, we will continue to fail our young people if we don’t look deeply into the problem and allow punishment to be our focus.
Instead, shifting to early intervention and youth support strategies to get kids back on track is key. This includes addressing the root causes that lead our youth to committing crimes in the first place. Many studies have shown that the history of abuse and trauma, that is a common hallmark of many young offenders, compounds their inability to make sound decisions. This is only worsened when we lock up and further alienate those who are already vulnerable.
After all, the last year has been a particularly trying year for marginalised young people. Our work at Humanity Matters let us see first hand the pandemic exacerbating challenges for vulnerable young people and in four main areas:
- Mental Health: At-risk young people, who are commonly already hesitant to trust new adult figures and were consequently tentative about using new mental health services online or over the phone. Access to these services was another barrier.
- Education: School absenteeism has increased through observations and interactions with young people. Home-schooling systems made it easier to disengage and even after the lockdowns, Humanity Matters has seen young people continue to be enrolled online or in home-schooling, without attending classes. Furthermore, there is higher uncertainty for young people about their future, creating negativity and hesitance around engaging with the schooling systems.
- Financial security: Employment has been more difficult for young people to sustain and attain during the pandemic, and young people already experiencing poverty were becoming even more isolated and disconnected, which made it more challenging to find stable employment.
- Social impact: Less and more disrupted social contact, daily structure, and sense of routine negatively affected young people, compounding the impact on any pre-existing mental health issues and feelings of isolation.
Recognising these issues, governments, social impact leaders and the community together need to look into measures to prevent young people from falling through the cracks of our mainstream education system, and ensure they have the support and empowerment they need to healthily engage in their communities.
This is not only more cost effective than incarcerating children, it also means we give them a better chance at succeeding in life. Young people need healthy interactions and support to grow into adults that go on to foster safe, productive and inclusive communities for the next generation. As the saying goes, it takes a community to raise a child.