cartoon of young people in juvenile justice system

Working with young people involved with the juvenile justice system

Overview of the needs & issues

Risk factors for involvement in crime

Extensive research shows that a number of factors greatly increase the risk of young people becoming involved in crime.

The strongest predictors are a lack of parental involvement in a child's life, lack of adequate parental supervision, rejection of a child by a parent and a parent's lack of emotional attachment to a child. 12, 20

Other risk factors include:

  • difficulties in school including suspension, truancy and low educational attainment
  • homelessness or unstable accommodation
  • substance abuse
  • unemployment
  • poverty
  • family breakdown and disruption
  • negative peer association
  • poor personal and social skills
  • limited leisure and recreation opportunities
    5, 7, 12, 20, 24

Risk factors do not cause crime, nor do they excuse crime. Risk factors increase the risk of becoming involved in crime. By targeting the known risk factors we can be confident that we are preventing and reducing crime.

Aboriginal young people, young people in care, young women, young people with a disability and young people with difficulties at school face a range of issues in relation to juvenile justice. An overview of these issues follows.

Aboriginal young people
Aboriginal young people are significantly over-represented in all areas of the juvenile justice system. Despite comprising only 3% of the general youth population, Aboriginal young people make up 30-40% of young people at each level of the system. 13

Aboriginal young people are a significantly disadvantaged group in the community and are faced with many of the risk factors outlined above.

Thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their families all over Australia purely on the basis of their Aboriginality. This practice continued until the 1970s and many parents or grandparents of Aboriginal young people were taken away from their families. This history of the "Stolen Generations" has undermined the parenting practices of many families. 15

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has found that the effect of family separation has lead to feelings of worthlessness and depression, and can lead to violence and delinquency. 15

Aboriginal young people face many disadvantages in life, in relation to poverty, education, unemployment, school suspension, and lack of culturally appropriate service provision. More information about these issues is outlined in the Aboriginal section of this manual, and in the Early School Leavers section of this manual.

Studies have found that institutionalised racism and a lack of understanding of Aboriginal young people and culture by magistrates result in young Aboriginal people receiving much higher penalties in the juvenile justice system than their Anglo-Australian counterparts. 6,13

Aboriginal young people are also significantly over-represented as victims of crime. Aboriginal young people are three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault and five times more likely to be victims of domestic violence or assault causing grievous bodily harm.

Young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
Young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are over-represented in the NSW criminal justice system. 13

In particular, Pacific Islanders receive significantly higher penalties than their Anglo-Australian counterparts. 13

The Department of Juvenile Justice has produced a useful guide to working with Pacific Islander young people (details at the end of this section).

Young people in care
The majority of young people in care (previously known as "state wards") do not come into contact with the juvenile justice system, however as a group they are over-represented. 5

Young people in care are those who are likely to experience many of these risk factors thereby increasing their risk of becoming involved with crime. 5

Young people with disabilities
Young people with intellectual disabilities and young people with mental health issues are over-represented in the juvenile justice system.

The 2003 Young People in Custody Health Survey, found that of those young people in detention:

  • 88% reported symptoms of mild, moderate or severe psychiatric disorder
  • 30% reported symptoms of attention deficit disorder
  • 21% reported symptoms of schizophrenia
  • 17% had intelligence scores assessed as intellectual disability. 8

Young people with difficulties in school
The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research has found that young people with low educational attainment are more likely to offend, more likely to offend frequently, more likely to commit more serious offences and more likely to persist in crime. 25

Truancy and suspension are high risk factors for involvement in crime. For example, around 90% of those in detention have been suspended from school. 7, 25

Interventions which improve school performance have proved successful in reducing offending behaviour. 25

Young women
Young women are under represented in the juvenile justice system. Only 19% of those referred to Youth Justice Conferences, and 5% of those in detention are female. 7

However the specific needs of young women in the juvenile justice system require particular attention, given the life disadvantages many of them have faced.

For example, in reporting on young women in detention, the Department of Juvenile Justice states:
The vast majority of young women in juvenile justice come from low socio-economic backgrounds, have a poor attachment to education, and a history of sexual and physical abuse and violence, neglect and/or trauma. A majority have experienced periods of homelessness. These experiences contribute to patterns of high risk behaviour, typically including problematic substance use, self-mutilation, unsafe sex, generally poor levels of self-care and a tendency to put themselves in high risk situations. Involvement in violent and abusive intimate relationships is also common. Young women's offending behaviour is often related to these histories and behaviour patterns, and is particularly related to substance use, with a large proportion of young women entering the juvenile justice system on drug-related charges . 9