What this growing level of evidence is telling us is that imprisoning young people, and particularly children, does not work and will only have an adverse impact on the child and ultimately the community.
Add in the cost of some $500,000 a year to keep a child locked up in Victoria and all of us should be asking the government to find a better way.
That answer is to intervene at the first sign of disengagement.
One key sign, as those who work with kids can tell you, is school refusal, which is a key predictor of a child starting to fall through the cracks.
As this disengagement takes hold, it leaves a child open to antisocial peer influences that increase the likelihood of the child offending, with association with ‘deviant peers’ one of the strongest predictors of engagement in criminal activities.
What this tells us is that school is the most effective place that such behaviours can be sighted and addressed. Asking stressed and over-worked teachers to make such calls and intervene is not the solution. What is needed is support from qualified youth workers and other specialist services to provide an alternative to negative peer group influences.
Balance that with structured activities to help build self-esteem, respect and mentoring, and you can create a positive pathway for the young person.
We know this can be successful, as youth workers from the Les Twentyman Foundation create these positive relationships daily in primary and secondary schools through our Positive Futures program. By embedding youth workers in schools, we are easing the burden on teachers, supporting school leaders and helping to address student disengagement at the earliest signs.
This program has seen absenteeism rates fall and children who are supported are reconnecting with their schools, families and communities, many going on to complete studies and heading into what they see as a positive future.
Surely such programs provide a better solution than spending millions of dollars locking children up in a system that is likely to see them reoffend.
Let’s get smart, support the raising of the age of criminal responsibility and invest in youth support programs that will lead to positive outcomes for children, their families and society.
Renee Hancock is chief executive officer of the Les Twentyman Foundation.