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Youth Justice – moving away from ‘tough on crime’ to an evidence-based approach

15 December 2020

News and media


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The public debate around youth justice is dominated by calls for a punitive approach which run counter to the global evidence on effective methods used to reduce youth crime and repeat offending.

A new paper from ANZSOG’s Research Insights series ‘Ten Pillars of Youth Justice’, prepared by independent consultant and youth justice expert Lisa Ward, examines the best available evidence and outlines the key practical imperatives to inform the design of youth justice systems.

The paper originated from the first of ANZSOG’s series of Problem Solving Workshops. These workshops are designed to create a safe, cross-jurisdictional environment outside existing structures for a constructive, confidential discussion of challenging public policy and public management issues.

Youth justice was chosen as a policy area with which every Australasian jurisdiction is struggling, and the workshop brought together a wide range of youth justice stakeholders including former elected officials, independent watchdogs and administrators, to explore how evidence and public discourse could be brought into closer alignment in the interests of more effective public policy.

The reality is that we know much already about what is effective in youth justice, informed by a body of materials that crosses scholarly research and grey literature. Findings are synthesised in various meta-analyses, and evidence-based reviews, many of which are limited to studies that satisfy robust methodological criteria consistent with the scientific method.

The paper is intended to summarise current knowledge in an applied manner and articulate the rationale for why we do the things we do. It also provides a framework on which individual jurisdictions can build to assess their performance against the evidence.

Findings and recommendations

Young people have visibly different brain architecture to adults and are hard-wired to test limits, act without thinking, overlook the consequences of their actions and react strongly to peer influence.

At the same time, youthful brains have great potential to change behaviour patterns before they become entrenched, and effective youth justice systems are designed with the distinct developmental characteristics of young people front and centre, not just smaller versions of adult correctional systems.

The Ten Pillars focus on how to design a justice system that is not simply a smaller version of an adult correctional system, but one which helps to keep young people away from the criminal justice system, and provides a safe environment to address trauma and provide education.

They intersect and overlap; their value is in their collective ability to inform Youth Justice policy and practice.

Treat young people differently to adults
Keep young people away from the criminal justice system
Privilege engagement and relationships
Collaborate with family and community
Partner with education
Address trauma and complexity therapeutically
Connect service systems
Invest in restorative approaches
Tailor responses to different cohorts
Provide safe, structured custodial environments.

The paper focuses on how these pillars can be used to create better relationships between young people and staff, which in turn create a safer youth justice workplace more reliant on relationships than physical barriers and restraints.

Research also shows that facilitating strong connections to family, community and country, both individually and systemically, is essential in reducing criminal justice system contact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

One of the complexities of youth justice is the fact that multiple agencies are required to address the root causes, including impact of trauma and the way it can impede young people’s participation in treatment or education.

The paper concludes that collaboration across service systems is vital because primary prevention is not the remit of statutory Youth Justice systems. Primary services must be engaged in prevention and diversion activities at both an individual and community level. This is particularly true in Youth Justice, where the statutory nature of intervention can create a space for voluntary services to exit the field unless formal mechanisms keep them engaged. Youth Justice intervention is finite by nature and other services must be in place when orders end.

Download the paper here  (word version)

About ANZSOG’s Research Insights

ANZSOG’s mission is to lift the quality of public sector leadership in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand. As part of this mission, we seek to:

educate  public sector leaders to improve their skills, capacity and management, and expose them to the best thinking on public administration. 
enrich the discipline of public sector leadership through focused research, which has a practical application and meets the needs of our owner governments. 
connect diverse people, cultures, institutions and jurisdictions – it is a meeting place where public sector leaders come together to be inspired, share, learn and debate accepted practice and new ideas. We also connect senior public service practitioners and academic, and provide a bridge between theory and practice. 
inspire public servants to make a positive difference to the lives of people in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand. 

ANZSOG’s Research Insights series supports this mission through disseminating conceptual and practical reflections from our network of expert practitioners and academics, ranging across the span of ANZSOG’s work. Find out more here.