Scotland a shining example in youth justice

May 8, 2023
Kid's hand holding sculpture of themis, femida or justice goddess on green leaves natural bokeh background.

As 2022 closed, WA’s main juvenile detention centre, Banksia Hill, grabbed national attention when one of its buildings was burned to the ground by rioting inmates, who scaled the fences in a stand-off with the riot squad.

As 2023 unfolds, it’s still getting headlines as the state’s Commissioner for Children and Young People declares that children locked down there are “screaming out of their souls” and needing far greater support.

Commissioner Jacqueline McGowan-Jones also toured Casuarina Prison’s Unit 18, an isolated part of a maximum-security prison where young offenders who Banksia can’t handle are sent.

Within days of the visit, a Unit 18 guard was assaulted and a dozen children climbed on to the roof, damaging the building and throwing enough debris to injure seven guards.

The response? Premier Mark McGowan promises legislation so that all kids are shifted to adult prison as soon as they turn 18. Commissioner McGowan-Jones says this won’t work. What’s needed is support as “most of them have cognitive and intellectual impairments”, she told the ABC.

Meanwhile, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has announced harsher penalties for young offenders (a kneejerk reaction to one, heavily publicised, case) and the creation of yet more detention centres. She has gone as far as to say that the Government has done its job and it’s now up to the courts to do theirs. So much for judicial independence.

Clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Ahona Guha has said while tougher penalties and more detention centres “may provide a brief measure of community protection … research on incarceration … consistently shows that it has limited to no effect on reducing rates of re-offending”.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare records that about 800 Australian children were in prison on an average day as at June 2020.

In Scotland, as at 2021-22, there were 14, down from 22 in 2020-21. And, as 2023 unfolds there, it will soon be zero.

So, are gangs roaming Glasgow’s streets, the population terrorised? The Highlands under siege? Not a bit of it.

The Scottish Government has taken to heart the messages Commissioner McGowan-Jones and Dr Guha are trying to get into the thick skulls of their premiers.

Maybe it’s not that the skulls are thick, just that the political heads are hard, paralysed by decades of “law-and-order” election auctions (with the honourable exception of this year’s NSW campaign), leaving Australian electorates primed only to view criminal justice in terms of more and longer prison sentences.

It doesn’t have to be that way, as the Scots’ experience demonstrates.

The Scottish government declared in recent weeks that it wanted to end the placement of under-18s in custody “without delay”.

The BBC reported “Instead, ministers said they would fund ‘care-based alternatives’ and shift the approach from ‘one of punishment to one of love and support’.”

Impossible, at least just at the moment, to imagine an Australian premier echoing this, but it can happen. And it needs to happen.

The Justice Reform Initiative is an alliance of people with professional, lived or expert experience of the system. Its patrons are a roll call of the cream of executive, political and judicial (and other) talent of recent decades (think governors-general Deane and Bryce, judges Kirby and Gaudron; and ministers Baume, Chaney, Tickner and Debus for starters).

The evidence of its Jailing is Failing research is as overwhelming as its patronage is impressive.

Principal findings included:

PRISON has become both the default measure to address crime and a default system to “manage” complex disadvantage. But prisons do not deter crime nor address the drivers of crime.

There has been a SYSTEMIC FAILURE to address the underlying social determinants of contact with the criminal-justice system.

“TOUGH ON CRIME” has become the convenient, politically accepted strategy, partly driven by the media dehumanising offenders.

LIMITED COMMITMENT has been demonstrated to building genuine alternatives to prisons, or pathways out of prisons – despite an extraordinary body of evidence that the prisons are failing.

The JRI report aims for a community in which disadvantage is no longer met with a criminal-justice response; where the dominant public narrative is that prisons are harmful and ineffective; where the balance of media reporting reflects this and so influences decision makers. And it aims for this to be Australia in 2030.

Sometimes leaders need to do what is right, not what is easy because it is, at least at this moment, popular.

It will take the sort of courage Benjamin Franklin spoke of a quarter of a millennium ago:

We must not in the course of public life expect immediate approbation and immediate grateful acknowledgment of our services. But let us persevere through abuse and even injury. The internal satisfaction of a good conscience is always present, and time will do us justice in the minds of the people, even those at present the most prejudiced against us.”

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