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Jailing children a costly failure when trying to cut crime

By Dr Mindy Sotiri, The Australian, January 3rd 2023

When unthinkable crimes occur our collective outrage quickly catapults us into action.

We seek answers to reasonable questions; how and why did this happen? And how do we ‘fix’ the system to prevent this from happening again?

The politically popular response, without fail, is to ‘get tough’ on crime. The announcement of snap policies, such as harsher penalties, more prison beds, and limiting the right to bail have become the default political flex because of their ability to create, at least in the short term, a perception of safety and security.

However, as mounting international evidence shows, policies designed to placate a nervous constituency without accounting for the drivers of crime rarely lead to safer communities, and can in fact have disastrous consequences for disadvantaged and vulnerable populations.

Sometimes these consequences are unintended. For example, in 2017, 41 per cent of women in Victoria’s prisons were unsentenced and held on remand, typically for non-violent offences. Just a few years later, this figure has climbed to 56 per cent, driven in large part by the introduction of tougher bail laws following the Bourke St rampage that killed six people.

When the Victorian government restricted access to bail, lawmakers presumably didn’t intend to lock away more women, many of them vulnerable and with no prior prison history, for offences for which they had not yet been convicted. 

But sometimes – as we are now seeing in Queensland with the announcement of two new youth detention facilities and longer sentences for children following the tragic death of Emma Lovell – a terrible crime will trigger a rapid policy response that will operate to draw more people into the criminal justice system.  The question we need to ask ourselves as a community is what impact will this actually have when it comes to improving community safety?

Children who are imprisoned almost invariably come from circumstances of poverty, disadvantage and trauma – these are key drivers of crime. Acknowledging these drivers does not excuse crime or minimise its severity. However, understanding the circumstances in which most crime is committed provides critical context for better understanding what we need to do if we truly want to get serious about addressing it.

The evidence is very clear that the threat of harsher penalties for children does not work to reduce crime.  Queensland already imprisons the highest number of children Australia-wide, with the youth prison population increasing by 27.3% over the past seven years.

The evidence is also clear that locking children up does not work to deter, to rehabilitate or to improve community safety.  Almost all young people who are imprisoned in youth detention in Queensland reoffend within 12 months of their release.

What we do know is that the experience of prison causes further trauma to a highly vulnerable group, making it more likely that children will re-offend after their release, creating a ‘revolving door’ in and out of the criminal justice system.

Policymakers around the world and increasingly around Australia are recognising the failure of imprisonment in terms of its crime control ambitions, and are instead moving towards criminal justice policies based in evidence, not populist rhetoric.

It currently costs $1,880 per day or $686,127 per year to imprison a child in custody in Queensland. Imagine if that funding was invested in community-led alternatives that actually have an evidence base in terms of reducing crime.

There are multiple evidence-based reforms that we can look to immediately that will make a difference and are extraordinarily economical when compared to incarceration. There are opportunities for community-led diversion at the point of police and court (including bail support programs for people in the community); there are First Nations-led responses that are place based, culturally meaningful and already achieving incredible outcomes for those who are able to access them; there are health and community focused responses at the point of release from custody that show dramatic reductions in recidivism.

Taxpayers would be far better served by significant investment in early intervention, early prevention, diversion, and evidence-based alternatives outside of the youth justice system.

Keeping people out of prison and reducing crime is not an unsolvable puzzle.  We need to acknowledge that the over-use of imprisonment has been a policy failure; we need adequate funding for evidence-based alternatives; and we need the political leadership and will to embrace the evidence about what genuinely works to build safer communities.


Dr Mindy Sotiri is Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative.

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