By Christine Milne AO, Mercury, December 2, 2022
Amid the weight of testimony at the recent hearings probing child sexual abuse at Ashley Youth Detention Centre, former detainee ‘Fred’ made a powerful call for change: “Tear the place down and start again.”
The Rockliff government has now outlined plans to do just that, releasing its draft blueprint for youth justice which maps a new approach for Tasmania, and for Australia.
Under the plan, Ashley will be closed and replaced with five purpose-built facilities based on a therapeutic, rather than punitive approach to children who come into contact with the justice system. Additionally, a whole-of-government and community-based approach is proposed to prioritise prevention, early intervention and diversion from the youth justice system.
While the detail and immediate first steps of the plan are being finalised, the blueprint represents a strong step towards evidence-based criminal justice policy which has been largely absent in Australia over the past two decades – particularly when it comes to youth justice.
This move is particularly heartening when we have recently seen disturbing images from Banksia Hill youth detention centre in Western Australia, when Don Dale in the Northern Territory is still open five years after a Royal Commission recommended its closure, and as the number of children imprisoned in Queensland skyrockets to the highest in the country, prompting the state Government there to consider a new prison for those kids.
As one of the many patrons of the Justice Reform Initiative, which is working for evidence-based criminal justice reform around Australia, I commend Tasmania’s leaders for putting good policy above failed ‘law and order’ politicking. Although ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric makes for snappy soundbites, it has in Tasmania, and in fact around Australia, been entirely ineffective as a policy approach.
It is clear that locking up children in places like Ashley has been a harmful and costly policy failure.
There is a need for justice policy that is focused on being smart on crime, addressing the drivers of incarceration and recognising that the incarceration of children in punitive and dangerous prison environments serves nobody.
Most encouragingly, Tasmanians are recognising the importance of this youth justice reform and putting political allegiances aside to unite behind it, with both the Greens and Labor voicing support for the blueprint.
Tasmania has an opportunity to lead the nation by turning around existing broken models of youth justice which entrench disadvantage and cycles of reincarceration, compounding trauma and leading to worse outcomes for individuals, families and communities.
The Tasmanian government has shown clear intent for a smarter approach, but the hard work now begins in terms of delivering the necessary resourcing shift so that children 'caught' in the justice system instead receive effective support and assistance in the community.
Support services must be equipped to be able to work intensively and long-term with children who have experienced significant disadvantage and trauma. Workers and services must have the capacity to address both the behaviours that have resulted in children coming into the justice system, and the drivers of those behaviours.
Many children who have been through Ashley end up in the adult criminal justice system. There is a strong case for well-directed funding to be spent early on to prevent the enormous costs incurred otherwise. The upside is less crime, fewer victims, and safety communities.
Working alongside this community-based approach is the need to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 and to ensure that there is always a presumption in favour of bail for any child charged with any criminal offence.
While the government has committed to making 14 the minimum age of detention, I urge it to show further leadership and recognise the strength of evidence which shows 14 is the minimum age, developmentally and neurologically, that children could or should be held criminally responsible. Raising the age is an essential step to stop young people entering the criminal justice system and becoming trapped in a lifelong struggle.
Tasmanians should be proud of these important first steps towards an evidence-based youth justice system, but we must ensure we do not falter in the delivery.
We must invest in community-led services and programs, guided by evidence and world’s best practice, to give children at risk of justice system involvement, genuine opportunities to turn their lives around, and build productive, hopeful and meaningful lives in the community.
Christine Milne AO is a patron of the Justice Reform Initiative, ambassador for the Global Greens, former member of the Tasmanian Parliament and former federal Senator for Tasmania.