Not so ‘explosive’ report on youth justice

Is there an opportunity for a new youth detention model?

Recent media coverage  about an internal secret report (March 2016 ) to Government about the youth detention system is a missed opportunity for public debate .

Sadly, it has largely generated hysteria about a ‘crisis’ in the youth detention system and fuelled the political football match between two old rivals: ‘Tough on Crime’  and  that perennial underdog  ‘Youth detention system is failing.’

The report recommends :

  • a total physical redevelopment of Parkville and an upgrade of other secure youth facilities;
  • an increase in staff;
  • more permanent , experienced & competent staff; and
  • a focus on rehabilitation and not tough -on -crime .

These are sound. Surely the provision of adequate and effective staff and a focus on rehabilitation are a no brainer for a functional youth detention system?  Physical redevelopment is a big one. Until the recent spate of damage and escape incidents it was perhaps not high on the agenda.

The Victorian Government has been slow to bring  about change  however it does have a major internal review near completion. To its credit, the Government has initiated a raft of early intervention and prevention programs to reduce offending . They have also consulted widely and directed significant funding to tackle the the challenging cohort of young people who are engaged in serious and repeat offending.

What is not heartening is the unhelp view of the Matthew Guy’s ‘Tough on Crime’ team, who just wants to put away and forget any young offenders.

If no one else can act as the umpire of good sense, Youthlaw will step up. We challenge all the political parties to support introduction of a new model, such as the youth detention model used in Spain . The Spanish model is highly effective and could easily be introduced in Australia.

23 years ago, Spain had a youth detention system similar to Victoria’s. They were operating in a similar context to us – with overcrowded adult prisons and young people flowing seamlessly into adult prison. They also were dealing with similar types of youth crime.

The success of the Spanish model is clear, as across Spain there is now a 75% success rate of young people reintegrating into society.  Youth detention facilities in Spain rarely have violent incidents, rarely use restraints and security guards represent only a small percentage of their staff. Handcuffs and batons are never used; they have no recorded incidents of self-harm and no reported escapes.

In our view, the keys to this successful model are:

  • Ensuring that staff interacting with young people are educators and are not guards (educators have no role in physical restraint & semi educators can use restraint if required);
  • Ensuring that security guards are employed but that they do not interact with the young people;
  • Providing adequate staffing. For a 61 bed facility they employ 80 educators, 20 semi educators and 7 security guards (solely security & good order);
  • Mandating all staff have a degree qualification;
  • Requiring initial induction for young person is set at 20 days and includes full medical & psychological assessment;
  • Ensuring each young person is seen by a psychologist daily and has an individual plan
  • Guaranteeing young people are in a facility as close as possible to their family and that family contact is encouraged and not unreasonably withheld ;.
  • Making sure managers/Directors of facilities are psychologists;
  • Judges/prosecutors visiting every 3 months;
  • Facilities are run by not for profit organisations;
  • Ensuring facilities are relatively small ( max population is 90); and
  • Requiring facilities include autonomous sections that enable young people to prepare for leaving detention.

The other benefit of the Spanish model is that they have a mix of facilities, including secure residences. The latter often house young people who commit violence against their parents. The facilities have a ratio of 11 educators to 10 young people and each provides a program of psychological support, education and vocational training.

Most impressively, the Spanish facilities not only produce better outcomes, but they cost one-third of those in England.

In addition to the facilities themselves, we can learn from the Spanish example about laws that have been changed to strengthen the objective of re-integration. This includes, at age 18 a young person’s criminal record being cleared.

You can read more about the Spanish model here:

We encourage all teams in the current political football match to call time on a stifling debate and make concrete suggestions so that our youth detention system tangibly improves.

-Ariel Couchman, Director