If juvenile detention is a detestable solution, can we think about the problem differently?

The footage from the Don Dale detention centre has upset many Australians and provoked a federal response. Some have expressed shock and surprise at the images, whilst others have reminded the public that abuse within our prison system is an ongoing issue, particularly for minority groups. Whilst unacceptable, the failings of the prison system should be no surprise. Prison has long been understood as the “detestable solution”, it is “dangerous when it is not useless” (Foucault, 1979). When recidivism rates across Australia are regularly upwards of fifty percent, it is tough to argue that the prison system is an effective solution to the problem of crime. The next challenge lie in thinking of a better solution.

Debate in the media on the scope of a royal commission into the revelations from the Four Corners program has some people calling for a national review of the juvenile justice system and systemic abuse. In contrast the Attorney General, George Brandis, has called for narrow focus so that practical solutions can be found. The practical solutions Mr Brandis is hoping for are unlikely to produce the revolutionary change Aboriginal activists are longing for in a system that has a blatant overrepresentation of Aboriginal young people. However, Mr Brandis’ emphasis on focus has merit. The focus of the commission will certainly determine its outcomes.

To focus a commission on the operations of the current “detestable solution” will only likely to produce findings that at best reinforce and reform the existing solution. Pausing for a moment from the need to fix the systemic issues presented by Four Corners, it is possible to ask: what is the problem for which juvenile detention facilities like Don Dale are the solution? The fear-inducing answer of “Youth Crime” is regularly broadcast by “tough-on-crime” politics. When the solution to this problem produces results that are so unsatisfactory, it gives reason to question the way problem is described.

The way in which a problem is understood creates the parameters for the possible solutions. If the problem is young people breaking the law, then the solution is to enforce the law. However, if the problem can be thought about differently then perhaps there is scope for different solutions. This is the power of a clear focus. To focus on the failings of the current system is unlikely to produce anything but reform. But to question the problem, might produce a new way of thinking and new solutions.

Critical youth academics and youth workers have been questioning the “moral panics” of “youth crime” for years. These kinds of popular responses inevitably describe youth as a time of “storm and struggle”, and emphasise the need for young people to change into (economically) responsible citizens. This narrow and deficit understanding of young people overlooks the current contribution young people make to society, not only economically, but also culturally (music, design, language), spiritually (optimism, hope, joy) and politically (progress, innovation, protest) just to name a few.

Similarly, much work is being done to reconceptualise the issue of crime by advocates of restorative justice for example. Restorative justice promotes an understanding of crime as a violation of relationship, rather than the breaking of intangible rules. Crime harms people, therefore the solution is to restore relationship and offer healing. Restorative justice is incorporated in limited ways into the juvenile justice system across Australia. There are also critics that point out that its underpinning logic is still reliant on change taking place in the young person, rather than challenging the social conditions that promote crime. However, the point here is that there are already other ways to think about this problem, which in turn produce different solutions.

When issues like those in the Don Dale detention centre are brought to light in the media the public outcry rightly demands a response. Unfortunately, responses which focus on reforming the existing solution overlook the need to question the foundational problem. Questions of public safety and the rule of law need to remain in the equation of crime and justice. However, results such as systemic abuse and high recidivism rates should suggest the need to consider not simply reform but the re-examining of the problem and the ways that young people and crime are thought about.

Ben Lohmeyer, Program Coordinator BASS (Youth Work), Tabor College

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