Last resort: How to keep children out of custody

Written on the 4 December 2013

A UQ hosted forum aired on ABC radio aimed to generate wider discussions on sentencing of youths through debate.

CAPTION: Janet Wright, Jann Taylor, April Chrzanowski, Professor Heather Douglas, Dr Stephen Stathis, Paul Barclay (Radio National’s Big Ideas program), Scott McDougall (Director, Caxton Legal Centre)

Organisers of a University of Queensland Law School youth justice forum hope its broadcast on the ABC will help prompt community debate over government proposals to impose harsher sentencing on young offenders.

The forum, co-hosted by the Caxton Legal Centre and Griffith University, was covered by Radio National’s Big Ideas program in late October.

Professor Heather Douglas says the panel discussion aimed to highlight potential consequences of the Queensland Government’s Safer Streets Crime Action Plan.

“The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the detention of a child should be used as a last resort,” Prof Douglas says.

“This principle is under threat in Queensland and lawmakers should be considering how to avoid detention through use of a greater range of early interventions and sentencing options to deal with young offenders.

“By bringing together experts with considerable experience in the realm of youth justice our aim is to contribute some much needed evidence to influence this debate in the hope of persuading lawmakers to reconsider their dramatic rollback of accepted legal principle in deciding these matters.

“Detention is a last resort when children are sentenced in all Australian states and territories, (and) it should stay that way.”

More than 150 people attended the Youth Justice and Detention as a Last Resort discussion held at the Queen Elizabeth II Court Complex.

Research suggests children should be treated differently to adults as detaining and removing them from their families, educational institutions and friendship groups can marginalise them from their communities and reduce their chances of rehabilitation.

The panel featured Royal Children’s Hospital Child and Youth Mental Health Service clinical director Dr Stephen Stathis, Youth Advocacy Centre director Janet Wright, barrister Jann Taylor and Griffith University criminal justice researcher April Chrzanowski.

They raised a number of key issues to be considered in the treatment of young offenders, ranging from social and medical factors to the high cost of incarceration in relation to alternative rehabilitation programs.

Dr Stathis says the vast majority of young people in youth detention centres have either a history of physical or sexual abuse, have suffered parental neglect or intergenerational trauma, or are exposed to a toxic peer group or family environment.

Early parenting programs such as Triple P, developed at UQ, and youth development initiatives can help to reduce the risk of offending by improving a young person’s home environment.

Chrzanowski revealed that the cost of detaining a juvenile in a youth detention centre is about $240,000 per year.   

Taylor says many young people in detention centres are unable to obtain bail simply because there is no safe place for them to stay due to family dysfunction.

The Youth Justice panel discussion was the final of a three part Social Justice Series.

It is available as a podcast at






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