Imprisoning children – what is going wrong?

Imprisoning children – what is going wrong?

25th Aug 2016

‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.’- Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Dylan Voller was first sent to Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory when he was 11 years old. According to ABC News, he was a ‘troubled boy with behavioural problems.’[1] In 2015, at age 17, Dylan Voller was transferred to Alice Springs Correctional Centre, an adult prison. Dylan’s name has been plastered all over the media recently because of the videos that were released showing the abuse he endured while at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. While this treatment is appalling, it brings to light a fundamental question that needs to be addressed – eight years have now passed since Dylan first entered the criminal justice system as a youth, and he is still incarcerated as an adult. What is going wrong?

In a recent article by ABC News, Dylan’s mother spoke out about juvenile detention.[2] She said that ‘something happened in Dylan’s [earlier] life that made him really angry’ and that despite entering the youth justice system at age 11, the juvenile detention facilities not only failed to treat Dylan, but they also failed to ‘see the underlying issues’ of why Dylan acted the way he did. On top of this, after entering the system as a child with behavioural problems, Dylan was then subject to years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of those who were employed to look after him. It is likely that this accumulation of trauma cemented Dylan’s place in the youth justice system, and then later the criminal justice system as an adult.

Dylan’s case highlights how a child’s environment and experiences can be the reason that a child gets caught up in the criminal justice system, and often the child is in no control over this. An analysis of the association between criminal behaviour and experience of maltreatment as a child shows that a child is significantly more likely to commit a crime at a younger age if there is evidence of them experiencing mistreatment at least once.[3] This point is crucial for people to keep in mind when dealing with, managing, and better understanding young criminals and why they offend.

Closer to home, a friend of mine recently attended a hospital for depression and anxiety. He was assigned to a building filled with people from all walks of life, with all sorts of problems including drug addiction and mental illness. The one thing they all had in common was their experience of some form of childhood trauma, a trauma that catapulted them into the position they were in today. Some of these people had been caught up in the criminal justice system since they were juveniles – and were now desperately trying to change old habits.

Reasearch by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle Jr suggests that incarcerating children can only further damage them. The paper presents evidence that juvenile detention is a counterproductive strategy for many youths under the age of 19, saying that not only does it reduce school graduation rates, but it also raises the chance of recidivism.[4]  Vincent Schiraldi, a Senior Research Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice and former head of NYC Probation and DC Juvenile Justice Agency, was responsible for reforming the juvenile corrections system in Washington, D.C. and New York. He has recently said that Australia should shut down all youth detention facilities ‘and come up with another model that fits the local area’.[5] Schiraldi believes that all young offenders should be transferred to community-based rehabilitation programs so that they can integrate back into their community as productive, law abiding citizens.  Further, a report by the Ministry of Justice in the United Kingdom has found that many prisoners come from problematic backgrounds that include evidence of abuse, neglect and alcoholism in their family.[6] This should be taken into consideration, and those dealing with juveniles should be sensitive to the traumas that they have experienced in their life.

It is from this understanding, that one can see a real need for the youth justice system to focus on finding the root cause as to why a child offends, and focus on rehabilitating that child in a safe and nurturing environment to reduce rates of recidivism. There is an understanding that these root problems can be incredibly complex and difficult to solve. However, giving up and imprisoning children, can only make the problem worse. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that ‘[a] child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding’.[7] Under that treaty, by which Australia has agreed to be bound, ‘arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time’.[8] The ongoing and repeated detention of Dylan Voller and many others like him suggests that Australia is in breach of this fundamental international obligation.

In closing, Atticus Finch, the timeless lawyer from To Kill a Mockingbird, fought tirelessly for justice in the face of systematic obstacles. He understood that you can only truly understand someone if you see things from their point of view. This is what those involved in our youth justice system should be doing. As the treatment of youth in detention centres is brought to light, we should be starting to look at how we can repair the youth justice system and its treatment of juveniles, paving the way for a new model that avoids prison, except as an absolute last resort, in line with our international obligations. The aim should always be to care for, understand, and rehabilitate young offenders, so that they do not get caught up in the criminal justice system in the future. We owe it to the Dylan Vollers of Australia to try.


Zoe Le Quesne was our Media and Policy Assistant until December 2016. She is passionate about human rights law and policy and has a huge heart for humanitarian issues. During her time studying at the University of New South Wales (Australia) and the University of Leeds (England), Zoe was particularly interested in War Zone and Political Violence Journalism, Human Rights Law and Policy, and Criminology. In her spare time Zoe volunteers her time at an organisation called Stop the Traffik, which fights to eliminate the trafficking of people in production lines, (focussing specifically in the fashion industry).

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Human rights Zoe Le Quesne Detention Real Change Youth Justice