Prevention, not punishment is key to reducing Indigenous youth detention

By Mihilini Fernando in conversation with Shahleena Musk | 25 May 17
Photo: Rusty Stewart

Recent events in Victoria have seen the government adopt a more punitive approach to young offenders. This approach has coincided with concerning reports of ongoing mistreatment and breaches of human rights of those within youth detention centres. But this is at odds with what we know of what works based on research about adolescent brain science and developmental psychology. While “tough on crime” may be the more politically popular card to play, it is vital that youth justice systems prioritise rehabilitative measures.

I spoke to human rights lawyer Shahleena Musk, who has taken up a position as a Senior Policy Advocate in the Indigenous Rights Unit of the Human Rights Law Centre. Prior to moving to Melbourne this year, Shahleena worked in the Northern Territory for over a decade, predominantly in youth justice at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA).

Mihilini Fernando: What were the main social welfare issues you observed amongst Indigenous youth in detention in the Northern Territory?

Shahleena Musk: The majority of the children I dealt with had experienced significant social and economic disadvantage, histories of trauma and/or neglect and came from homes and families that have also suffered similar disadvantage. Every child I dealt with was not in school at the time they were going through the courts and had been out of school from anywhere between six months to a number of years. They were disengaged and marginalised. A large proportion of the children were also in the child protection system.

That’s why it’s so important to understand and try to assist with addressing the socio-economic factors that contribute to offending. At NAAJA, we brought in a social worker and often linked the child to a caseworker, to see if we could try and address the causal factors to offending. If we didn’t there was greater likelihood the child would return and continue to remain enmeshed in the youth justice system.

The Northern Territory government has recently announced it will be spending an extra $18.2 million annually to focus on diversionary programs instead of locking kids up. Such programs will include boot camps, wilderness based programs and, for the first time, individualised support from youth workers, as an alternative to police and court intervention. What do you think of these measures?

When I was in the Northern Territory, I was involved in a lot of lobbying and advocacy with government and those in the sector to garner support for diversion and other therapeutic alternatives to the formal system. I support the youth diversion model in the Northern Territory and believe that it has many positive outcomes, including helping children to accept responsibility, address the causal factors leading to offending and to in some way make amends.

There needs to be increased funding and a range of alternatives that involve local aboriginal communities.

As part of the diversion model in the Northern Territory, they also involve restorative victim-offender conferences. From speaking to children who have gone through this process, and being involved as a support person in one, I believe it can be confronting but powerful in its response to youth crime. It gives victims a chance to tell the offender about the harm he/she has caused, and impress upon them the impact the crime has had on their lives. This helps to create insight and empathy within the offender. That’s the thing about diversion, it’s often tougher than going through the courts, where a young person may not have to say anything and can rely on a lawyer to speak on their behalf. Diversion has greater success rates largely due to the fact the response is individualised and tailored towards the child’s rehabilitation.

While I am strongly in favour of diversion and of the measures announced by the NT Government, I think there needs to be increased funding and a range of alternatives that involve local aboriginal communities.

In general, youth diversion, and the non-government organisations that are contracted to run the programs associated with diversion are under-resourced. There are often huge waiting lists, which means many young offenders have to wait as long as three months to access the diversion program. If there was more resourcing, it would mean that more children could go through the program at a faster rate – while it’s still relatively close to the offending, which will make the program more meaningful.

Since moving to Victoria, what do you think are the main challenges for Indigenous Victorian youth?

Each young person must be treated as an individual and as such a one size fits all response to youth offending will be ineffective. In relation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, there are so many different nations – different clan groups and different systems of law and responsibilities. What may work in one community may not be effective in another. That is why it is important to involve and empower Aboriginal communities, organisations and families in the design and implementation of alternative strategies to ensure culturally appropriate community driven solutions.

We need greater investment in early prevention mechanisms and diversionary options.

Recently, the Victorian government announced that it would be introducing more guards at youth facilities, as well as allow guards to be armed. What are the wider implications of a move toward a more punitive system for young people in detention? 

The approach to youth offending needs to be evidence-based to have effective outcomes. We need greater investment in early prevention mechanisms and diversionary options – programs and services that address the causative factors behind youth offending. These children are already marginalised so if you take them away from their families and away from society, they’re being further disconnected from positive social networks and protective factors.

Prisons are referred to as “universities of crime”; there is peer-contagion as they mix with other young people who have also committed crimes. They feel bonded by what they went through together in custody and build relationships that might very well continue on the outside. When that happens, the rates of recidivism are higher.

Also, what happened in the Northern Territory, in terms of the practices, management and abuses, was allowed to occur because youth justice was moved into adult Corrections.

This is similar to what is happening here in Victoria, where the government plans to have Corrections Victoria oversee youth justice, instead of the Department of Health and Human Services. When that transfer happens, there is a real danger that children will be treated like adults – the specialisation around how to appropriately manage and assist children is lost, as philosophy, systems and practices blur into an adult-oriented model. In the Northern Territory, there were even officers from the adult prison placed in Don Dale’s high security unit for a period of time.

When the new government came into power in the Northern Territory in August 2016, one of the first changes made was to move youth justice away from Corrections and into the Department of Territory Families department.