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Media Release

January 30 2004

Juvenile justice programs pay little attention to what makes youths offend

Many juvenile justice programs for offenders aged between 10 – 21 years focus on the wellbeing of young people but pay little attention to what leads them to offend, a University of South Australia study shows.

Researchers from UniSA’s School of Psychology and the Australian Institute of Criminology were jointly commissioned by Victoria’s Juvenile Justice Department to undertake a review of current rehabilitation programs for young offenders and look at ways in which to improve the effectiveness of their programs.

The main aim of the project is to describe a framework for the development of rehabilitation programs to reduce the rate of juvenile reoffending, according to Dr Andrew Day from UniSA’s Forensic Psychology Research Group, who conducted the research with UniSA’s Professor of Forensic Psychology, Kevin Howells, and Ms Debra Rickwood from the Australian Institute of Criminology.

"The reoffending rate for young people leaving custody for any offence is very high, between 80 – 90 per cent, but is much lower for those on community service orders," Dr Day said.

"We were asked to evaluate current services in Victoria’s Juvenile Justice Department, look at what is best practice in the area of rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, and develop principles of good practice based on national and international research.

"We had to look at why juveniles offend and the risk factors for offending, including the characteristics of young people, their families or their environments that are associated with offending.

"Using a relatively new approach to psychological and behavioural treatment known as the ‘What works’ approach, we developed a suggested framework for rehabilitation services to specifically target and change the risk factors associated with offending, starting with the need to meet the basic health and welfare needs of young people, making sure that they are not homeless or hungry but safe and well cared for. The next part focuses on more general needs that might be related to offending, such as family or substitute relationships and their own relationships, with the final tier focusing on serious and persistent offenders. This includes specialist adolescent programs for sex offences and on male positive sexuality, and residential drug treatment and violence programs.

"The framework includes programs for juveniles who are at highest risk of reoffending, addressing the areas of need most directly related to the reasons why they offend and finding appropriate ways of delivering programs that match the learning styles and particular issues of young people," Dr Day said.

"For children as young as 10 years, the framework focuses on early intervention before problems are entrenched. These children clearly have different needs to older offenders including normal family contact and normal childhood. It is important to meet these developmental needs to make sure that the children grow up to be healthy and well adjusted adults, as well as to focus on the criminal justice aspect of their offending," Dr Day said.

"Working with parents or care-givers is critical for the younger offenders. Many come from very disruptive family backgrounds where consistent parenting isn’t available to them so we need to focus on families and parenting that works. For older adolescents, peers become increasingly important so our focus would be on beliefs about peers, status and identify issues, and beliefs about anti-social behaviour.

"For young people, interventions to stop offending are particularly effective, even more powerful than for adult offenders. It’s a really worthwhile enterprise to focus on crime intervention rather than punishment," Dr Day said.

"We know from programs evaluated around the world that a lot have produced quite significant changes and reductions in recidivism, and they are cost effective. The money they save through the impacts of crime, both in financial and indirect costs, far outweighs the cost to implement these programs.

"If high quality programs are designed and delivered in a particular way, there is enormous potential to intervene and reduce reoffending rates significantly. This includes careful assessment when selecting and classifying offenders into different programs to make sure that the outcomes are the most effective."

Media contact

  • Geraldine Hinter (08) 8302 0963 or 0417 861 832