Australian Institute of Criminology

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Juvenile justice

Juvenile justice

Juvenile justice in focus

Juveniles (those aged 10-16 years in Queensland and 10-17 years in all other Australian jurisdictions) commit more property than violent crimes, and generally commit less serious crimes such as graffiti, vandalism, shoplifting, fare evasion, motor vehicle theft, unlawful entry and road traffic offences.

In Australia children as young as six years were once incarcerated for crimes such as these. However, today’s approach to young offenders is quite different. Prison is now widely acknowledged as a solution of last resort for most juveniles.

A different approach

Australia’s legislation, policy and practice recognises that juveniles are more vulnerable than adults and need to be handled differently. Compared with adults, juveniles lack maturity, are more likely to take risks and are more easily influenced by peers. They are also more likely to ‘grow out’ of offending, becoming more law-abiding as they mature. A sentence in prison may entrench a criminal mindset and set a path for an adult life of crime.

Throughout Australia juveniles have been dealt with separately from adults and treated less harshly than their adult counterparts. A range of policing measures has been introduced to divert offenders away from the criminal justice system. These include cautioning, conducting meetings between an offender and their victim (restorative justice conferencing), and convening specialty courts (such as youth drug and alcohol courts). These options for dealing with juvenile offenders are often more intensive and costly than dealing with adult offenders, but have a better chance of ensuring young people do not go on to commit further crime.

Trends

The AIC has monitored juveniles in detention in Australia since 1981. It has found that the number of juvenile detainees per 100,000 head of population dropped from 64.9 in 1981 to 37 in 2008. Despite this drop, concerning trends have emerged including the over-representation of Indigenous juveniles in detention and the substantial increase in the proportion of juvenile detainees remanded, rather than sentenced.

Current projects

The AIC is working with the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) to evaluate four crime prevention, early intervention and diversion programs for Indigenous juveniles. These are part of the Evaluation of Indigenous justice programs run by the Australian Government’s Attorney-General’s Department. The AIC’s research will expand what is known about reducing offending by Indigenous juveniles, decreasing Indigenous over-representation in the juvenile justice system, and increasing community safety.

The AIC is also undertaking a national study of juvenile bail and remand. More than half of all juveniles in detention nationally are on remand (ie unsentenced) – a concerning situation. The AIC, with the support of the Australasian Juvenile Justice Administrators will study the main reasons for the increasing use of remand for juveniles, and the impacts these changes have on young people and government objectives. The research will also compare trends across jurisdictions to understand why patterns vary.