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Rehabilitation must be our focus for youth justice

“The children in this town… need places where they can go and feel wanted and needed. They need people that care about them, people that are willing to listen and help and be their friends.”

These are the words of a 17-year-old Aboriginal person who took part in a consultation I held recently with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people from all over WA.

Consulting children and young people is one of the core functions of the Commissioner’s office and what’s incredible from all of our consultations is how they can often see clearly what is required to help those facing challenges.

These thoughts came to me while I was reading the article by Prof John Boulton [February edition] in which he spoke about the need for an alternative approach to juvenile justice in the Kimberley.

It struck me how closely his description of the need to shift our focus in youth justice “from punishment to compassion, care and nurturing” matched very closely what this young person told us.

Research tells us that the factors that lead a child or young person into the criminal justice system include dysfunction at home and in the community, alcohol and drugs, violence, disadvantage and poverty, which can cause significant trauma and a loss of identity and self-esteem.

These are issues that require understanding, support and rehabilitation, not punishment.

While there are sometimes very serious crimes committed by young people, the majority initially come to the attention of authorities for low-level offences and this is the point at which we must act with a full complement of support and remedial measures.

Early intervention is essential to protect both the community and the wellbeing of the young people involved. So too are preventative programs that are holistic and culturally secure, meaning that they address the many complex factors affecting a young person’s wellbeing, in a way that is relevant to them and their family.

My recently released policy brief on Aboriginal children’s health identifies the challenges many Aboriginal children and young people face from an early age, including the higher rates of smoking during pregnancy, and increased likelihood of ear disease and physical injury.

At least 50 per cent of children and young people in detention have a mental health problem and the majority will have historically poor attendance at school. While I have seen several innovative programs that are successfully re-engaging these young people in education, there is much more to be done.

Later this year I will table in State Parliament my report and it will tell a story of incredible resilience, strength and success. It will also outline the significant challenges that Aboriginal children and young people themselves raised.

Part of the response required to address these challenges includes embracing a comprehensive statewide youth justice policy that aims to provide these vulnerable children and young people the opportunity to create a better future.

Jenni Perkins
A/Commissioner for Children and Young People WA

Medical Forum WA magazine