We need a shared vision for youth justice

The ‘tough on crime’ approach always seems to be lurking around the corner, despite the fact that across the globe many academics, advocates, professionals and people with lived experience all agree that such an approach is ineffective in reducing crime and does more harm than good. So why do our lawmakers and politicians keep reverting to a ‘tough on crime’ approach?

The tough on crime rhetoric presents us with choice: you are either ‘tough on crime’ (tougher bail laws, longer sentences, etc.) or you are against a safe community – this is of course a false choice. In fact, the opposite is true. Punitive or deterrent techniques (e.g. sanctions and supervision) are ineffective in reducing recidivism, with some of these approaches even increasing the risk of future offending. Scientific evidence clearly supports a focus on therapeutic and individualised approaches for young people involved in the justice system, building and strengthening positive youth development, social support networks and commitment to school and/or work.

Image from Messaging this Moment

After the recent conversations in Queensland, in response to range of youth justice law changes, I was reminded of a talk I attended by Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communications researcher and campaign advisor examining why certain messages resonate where others falter. She points out that ‘the job of a good message isn’t to say what’s popular, it’s to make popular what we need said’ (you can listen to Anat in the Word to Win BY podcast). In 2017, the Centre for Community Change partnered with Anat and published a handbook with messaging principles to assist grassroots groups to develop more effective narratives. What might we learn from this when trying to get our message across on youth justice? (Below I highlight the first three principles, for the full list of recommendations for effective messaging see the CC handbook).

Lead with shared values

It is tempting to focus on the problems we currently face in the youth justice system, they are pervasive and there are many (I won’t reiterate them here). Anat, however, has shown that effective narratives lead with shared values such as community, fairness and freedom. So instead of focusing on the failures of our current system, we can lead our calls for change by pointing out that we want healthy, safe and strong communities. We want a justice system that is justice for all, treats people equally no matter the colour of their skin.

Bring people into the frame and offer a clear origin of the problem

We didn’t just ‘end up’ with an ineffective justice system or young people that commit crimes. Decisions have been, and continue to be made by our lawmakers and politicians, that do not keep our communities safe, do not offer our young people the support they need, and create a system that is failing our young people and our communities.

Create something good

We tend to talk about fixing, reforming or improving the broken justice system, which does not communicate the motivation or any long-term goal we may have. We need to have a dream. This may be more difficult than simply opposing a punitive and ineffective system. Can we find a dream shared by academics, advocates, professionals and people with lived experience alike? How big do we dare to dream? How imaginative can we be?

The Square One Project from the U.S. is an initiative that tries to make us dream that dream by asking: if we start from ‘square one,’ how would justice policy be different? Several papers have come out of this project that offer insights into the possibilities of a new, more just, justice system. Vincent Schiraldi outlines the possibility of eliminating youth prisons and instead realigning resources and power to communities that are being most harmed. Leah Sakala and Nancy La Vigne describe the key elements of local-level community approaches in which police, jails, and prisons are either last resorts or off the table altogether.

However, when advocating for alternatives to incarceration, it is important to be critical towards relative versus absolute improvements. Seemingly ‘community’ alternatives can expand rather than contract the use of punitive supervision and control (see: Devolution, not decarceration by Sarah Cate, 2016). A broader approach is needed, a vision that reaches beyond consolidating the role of the justice system in our communities. Bruce Western, also from the Justice Lab in the US, urges that the criminal justice needs to become social justice, with the justice system addressing the social conditions in which incarceration occurs directly: poverty, violent threats in disadvantaged communities and racial inequality.

Image from a road map to zero youth detention taking a public health approach

Inspiration for such a vision can also be found in Seattle: King County has adopted a public health approach to its youth justice system, with a focus on resilience and well-being, building on the strengths of families and communities, while addressing gaps in the policies and processes that support them. It aims to place equal emphasis on promotion of well-being and the reduction of illness, risks or threats to safety. It frames the need to detain young people as a symptom of an ‘unhealthy’ community where they do not receive enough support and opportunities. It recognises the broader harm caused to communities’ health when young people are detained.

To conclude, in opposing the ‘tough on crime’ approach, we will need to come together with a clear message and a shared dream, a vision of a justice system that reaches beyond ‘criminal’ justice and contributes toward safe and strong communities that can support our young people to live happy, healthy lives.

Sanne Oostermeijer

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