The myth of the ‘child offender’ – a panel event for Social Sciences Week 2020 – watch the webinar below…

What does it mean to understand the ‘child offender’ as a ‘myth’? How do we – as social scientists, practitioners, researchers, teachers, law enforcers, students, a society – understand the criminalisation of children? Why are some children criminalised more than others? What happens when we criminalise children? And why are these questions important to ask, and to reflect on, for all of us?

This month, JYP-Network co-convenor Dr Diana Johns participated in a panel discussion with other members of the Australia & New Zealand Society of Criminology’s (ANZSOC) newly formed Thematic Group on Children and Young People in the Criminal Justice SystemDr Susie Baidawi (Monash University) and Robyn Oxley (University of Western Sydney). The event was hosted by Thematic Group convenors Dr Emma Colvin, Dr Shelley Turner and Dr Faith Gordon. For the 100+ people who attended the webinar, it was a rich opportunity to explore some of these issues, ask difficult questions, and challenge some of our deeply held and often taken-for-granted assumptions about ‘children’ as ‘offenders’.

Here, Diana briefly explains the concept of ‘myth’ and how it sets the scene for the discussion:

The concept of myth is, at first glance, a familiar one. We all know what ‘myths’ are – they are shared stories that have a function, which is usually to explain something about the world, how it is and how it came to be.

I’m using the concept of myth in a particular way, however, which draws on the ideas of French writer, thinker, essayist, Roland Barthes and his 1957 book, Mythologies. For Barthes, myth has specific meanings, qualities, dimensions and functions that give us a useful way to think about things we take for granted. From a Barthes-ian perspective, myth is a ‘system of communication’, ‘a message’, ‘a mode of signification’ – i.e. it is a form we use to convey meaning – BUT it distorts, it bends our perceptions in two important ways:

1) It removes history – “it transforms history into nature” (p.154) things lose the memory that they once were made” (p.169)

2) It appears as a statement of fact: “it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.”

These aspects of how myth functions make it a useful conceptual tool (or lens)! If we think about the myth of the ‘child offender’ through this lens, we see that this seemingly simple and recognisable term tends to strip away and conceal all the complexity of children’s lives, all the history of how this term came to be and, indeed, its construction as a legal definition that has changed and continues to change across time and place. As we start to see, this simple and recognisable form – the ‘child offender’ or the ‘youth offender’ – becomes less a concrete ‘thing’ and more a kind of shorthand for a whole set of assumptions that we tend not to question in our day-to-day lives – whether we work with young people, research children in the justice system, or consume images and stories about ‘young offenders’ and ‘youth crime’ in the media.

Watch the recording above to follow the discussion… Hear Robyn talk about how colonisation still shapes the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities in Australia, and how historical practices relate to current forms of criminalisation. Listen to Susie explain the overlap between the youth justice system and the child protection system, how children with neurodisabilities can be criminalised when systems fail them, and how children make sense of their own experiences of criminalisation…

We explore recent examples of ‘the myth of the child offender’ – what it looks like in practice – and we consider concrete ways that we can start to challenge this myth, to deepen our understanding of the complexities it hides, to bring about better outcomes for children.

This will be and always is an ongoing conversation… join in!

P.S. If you only have 5 minutes, here’s a taster… (you can watch the rest later!)

What do we mean by myth?

P.P.S. To read more about Roland Barthes’ notion of myth, here are some links:

Andrew Robinson (2011) gives a good explanation of Barthes’ notion of myth here in a short article (part of a six-part series on Barthes) in Ceasefire Magazine.

This short (3 minute video) animation explains how Barthes helps us understand media myths and myth-making and ‘How to Read the Signs in the News’:

Victorian election: How are the major parties addressing the law & order paradox?

By Dr Diana Johns, Co-convenor of the JYP Network and Senior Lecturer in Criminology; School of Social & Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

Key points

The Coalition promises to:

  • Arm police with 4,000 new Tasers
  • Have PSOs on select railway stations during the day
  • Reintroduce the ‘Police in Schools’ program
  • Introduce mandatory minimum sentencing for violent reoffending, through changes to concurrent sentences, and for additional child sex offences
  • Change the bail system to ‘one strike and you’re out’
  • Make it even harder for prisoners to get parole
  • Create a ‘Victorian Serious Sex Offenders Public Notification Register’
  • Extend support for and include victims of crime in legislative decision-making
  • GPS track people on parole after serving a jail term for a home invasion or car-jacking
  • Expand the existing Lara Prison precinct to include a new 1300-bed prison, including a 300-bed Western Victoria Remand Centre
  • Build an additional 300-bed Eastern Victoria Remand Centre in the Dandenong area
  • Fast track public security and counterterrorism measures, including new Terrorism Restriction Orders that would restrict and monitor the movement of individuals ‘in the processes of becoming radicalised towards violence’.

Labor promises to:

  • Continue to tackle the causes of crime, reduce repeat offending, and provide support to victims of crime
  • Recruit 3,135 new police officers (adding to the 20,000+ strong Victoria Police workforce that already includes 14,695 sworn officers)
  • Always have at least two desk officers on duty at all 108 of Victoria’s 24-hour police stations
  • Establish minimum requirements for the number of officers on the road and available to respond to emergency calls
  • Set minimum standards for crime prevention and local community engagement, custody management and ‘operational safety frameworks’ to improve officer welfare.

The Greens promise to:

  • Push for more funding for community legal centres and legal aid
  • Champion justice reinvestment approaches
  • Expand specialist courts including Koori Courts, Drug Courts, the Family Violence Division of the Magistrates’ Court and Neighbourhood Justice Centres


Law and order, according to Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy, is the “number one issue” for many Victorians. The framing of this issue by the three major parties, however, suggests different ideas about how best to tackle issues of crime and community safety. The main emphasis of the Coalition seems to be on reactive, punitive measures involving harsher sentencing, increased reliance on imprisonment, remand and post-sentence restriction, including public disclosure of sex offenders’ details, and expanding the presence and weaponry of uniformed officers. These policies seem to assume that crime can be controlled and prevented by apprehending and locking up more people – under harsher conditions – assumptions that have been consistently proven wrong.

Labor is pledging to continue a strong record of investment in community protection, around a central theme of tackling the causes of crime to reduce reoffending. Labor has presided over a period that has seen Victoria develop the toughest bail and parole regime in Australia, restrictive youth justice policies, and substantial investment in prison-building, in firm response to community concerns about crime. At the same time as their apparently punitive policy stance, Labor has also invested significant resources in community crime prevention, which they promise to continue.

At the heart of the Greens’ justice policy are principles of social inclusion and community-building as long-term strategies to reduce crime, fear and violence. The main feature is apparently a commitment to policies that reflect up-to-date evidence about ‘what works’. Alongside an emphasis on human rights and access to justice, the Greens have a strong focus on police powers, their main concerns being to curb police militarisation and increase police accountability.

The law and order paradox

Since 2014, when the Andrews Government was elected, Labor’s tenure has been marked by a law and order paradox.

On one hand, the number of people committing offences – particularly youth crime – has dropped. On the other, community concern about violence has intensified, largely due to media narratives that exacerbate public fears and magnify misperceptions about the extent and scale of the supposed ‘crime problem’.

While increases in criminal incidents in Victoria can be linked to increased reporting of family violence and sexual offences, for instance, public fears seem to reflect racialised crime myths perpetuated by media stories about ‘African gangs’, ‘Apex’ and ‘Moomba riots’. Serious and persistent non-racialised crime problems have been downplayed in favour of these more sensational headlines.

Another driver of public fear about crime and safety are the rare but shocking incidents of violence perpetrated by individuals, such as the horror that unfolded in Bourke Street on Friday afternoon, 9th November, which reignited terrifying memories of James Gargasoulas mowing down innocent pedestrians 22 months earlier.

These events spark fears about the government’s capacity to keep us safe. When the perpetrator is black and Muslim, those fears fuel further racialised crime myths.

Similar acts of violence have triggered legislative responses. The case of Sean Price, for example, who in 2015 murdered 17-year-old Masa Vukotic then raped another woman days later while under Department of Justice supervision. This case intensified public fear already heightened by the 2012 rape and murder of Jill Meagher by Adrian Bailey who had also been under Department supervision.

The resulting bail and parole reforms – under Coalition and Labor governments – have increased remand populations, intensified pressure on prison capacity, and thereby provided political justification for more prisons.

Given the abundant evidence of the crime-causing effects of imprisonment, however, not least the failed US experiment in mass incarceration, any attempt to ‘jail our way out of crime’ can be seen as deeply flawed policy.

Evidence-free policy

Fuelling public fears about ‘law and order’, the LNP has been mounting a campaign of reactive and punitive strategies, apparently aimed at deterrence and public protection. What is striking is the lack of reliable evidence to support these policies.

In response to this month’s Bourke Street attack, Matthew Guy has promised to ‘fast track’ laws to introduce Terrorism Restriction Orders, expanding police powers to try and control people who ‘may be developing terrorist behaviours’. This seemingly ignores the Harper Lay Report’s emphasis on community-wide collaborative approaches to preventing terrorist threats.

The ‘Police in Schools’ program was discontinued in Victoria over a decade ago and replaced by targeted police presence, via the Youth Resource Officer program, which aims to build trust with ‘at risk’ youth via strategic relationship-building activities.

Similarly, the proposal to add public registration to Victoria’s Sex Offenders Register, to “publicly disclose certain details of adult serious sex offenders, including photographs, [and] identifying descriptions” – supposedly for “the protection and safety of children, families and the community” – apparently ignores evidence that public registers reduce neither recidivism nor public fear.

The rising numbers of people on remand – in youth and adult prisons – have been associated with increased volatility and violence, yet the LNP is proposing to increase remand capacity, with no acknowledgement of these significant public safety risks – both for prison management and for the communities to which people are released from custody.

Evidence-based policy

In contrast, the Greens’ policies reflect evidence about longer-term strategies that reduce crime and its underlying causes, such as justice reinvestment, a data-driven approach to community-based crime prevention that aims to redirect money spent on prisons to the communities that feed prison populations.

This approach has been trialled in Bourke, NSW, since 2013 and has shown remarkable results in reducing crime, most notably domestic violence and drug offences.

Police play an important role in maintaining law and order, but key to this role is the issue of legitimacy – the community’s ability to maintain trust and confidence in police. Recent controversy about police misconduct has brought police legitimacy into question, however, particularly in terms of oversight and accountability.

Whereas Labor and the Greens echo the recent parliamentary inquiry’s recommendations about independent oversight and investigation of police complaints, this is a striking omission in Coalition policy announcements, which have instead focused on extending the presence of Protective Service Officers (PSOs) and the numbers of police who can use Tasers to apprehend suspects. In contrast, the Greens explicitly argue against further police militarisation and for limiting the use of electroshock weapons to life-threatening situations.

As the success of Bourke’s justice reinvestment project suggests, police are most effective when they engage and collaborate with the communities they are policing, using a problem-solving approach to address the underlying causes of crime problems.

Labor’s pledge to apply ‘a systemic approach to tackling high-harm offending’ appears to reflect this understanding, as does the Greens’ emphasis on the importance of police ‘with strong community links and a focus on maintaining a safe, peaceful and just society’.

Taking the long view

Short-term electoral cycles hamper effective responses to crime. This may explain the Coalition’s emphasis on reactive policies, which feed into community fears, rather than relying on evidence about what works to ensure community safety.

In terms of the courts, the LNP is focused on curtailing judicial discretion, proposing mandatory minimum sentencing and scrapping concurrent sentences, for instance.

In contrast, Labor and the Greens promise to support and expand specialist courts and programs shown to reduce offending and reoffending. Whereas Coalition crime prevention policy revives and reinforces outdated programs and ineffective approaches, Labor’s community engagement strategy recognises the need to work actively ‘upstream’ of the problem through early intervention.

Effective justice policy takes the long view of crime as a social problem that requires investment in communities.

Dr Diana Johns

This article was originally published on Election Watch, providing non-partisan, fact-based, expert analysis of key elections based at the University of Melbourne.

Follow @electionwatch_ on Twitter.

A social ecological approach to ‘child-friendly’ youth justice

In September 2017, I presented at the ‘Child-Friendly’ Youth Justice? Conference at Cambridge University in England. If you’re interested in  the topic of  #EffectivePractice in #YouthJustice, here’s the published version of what I was talking about, and a brief summary below…

A social ecological approach to ‘child-friendly’ youth justice

By Diana Johns

This paper draws on a 2015 study of ‘prolific’ offending by young people in Wales (Johns, Williams & Haines 2016). Following this study, using a case study of twelve young people and their YOT workers, we applied a social ecological lens to understand how and why youth justice interventions may have a positive impact in young people’s lives (Johns, Williams & Haines 2017). Through this analysis, we identify the keys to effective ‘child-friendly’ practice.

A child-friendly approach?

The social ecological approach to understanding children’s high-volume or persistent offending is ‘child-friendly’ because it decentres the young person as ‘the problem’, instead seeing the young person in different contexts.

By recognising that a young person’s identity is shaped through their interactions with others, a social ecological perspective tends to invite a strengths-based approach – building up a child’s capacity to trust and be trusted by others, rather than ‘filling in’ their deficits.

At the individual level, this means getting to know a young person to understand their strengths, interests, skills, hopes and abilities. It also means understanding their developmental stage and level of maturity.

From this social-ecological perspective, the worker’s role is to:

  • engage with and strengthen a young person’s supportive relationships, including within their family and peer group
  • seek out and advocate for young people’s access to opportunities to develop skills, to pursue pathways and identities away from offending, and to succeed.
  • consider the range of familial, social and cultural models available to young people in their area and at the time.

As one young man, ‘Gareth’ (who I interviewed at age 21) described, the Youth Offending Team (YOT) was:

…good at getting you on the right track, and keeping you here, making you feel rewarded, and that’s all you need to do really isn’t it?


Here’s the link to the published compendium of papers from the conference (my piece is on pages 24-28):

‘Locking Up Our Kids – What Do We Hope to Achieve?’: A public conversation

Our inaugural public event was held on Tuesday 11th April 2018 at the University of Melbourne.

Our panel of experts – Wayne Muir (VALS), Nathan Hughes (Sheffield Uni), Anne Hooker (Port Phillip Prison Youth Unit) and Roger Antochi (TalentRISE) – brought diverse perspectives to a rich, provocative, moving discussion about the practices, policies and consequences of locking up children and young people.

These themes emerged most strongly:

  • the need to acknowledge individual and systemic bias;
  • the links between child protection and increased likelihood of criminalisation and youth justice involvement;
  • how failings in the education system drive children and young people towards justice-involvement;
  • the need to use custody as a last resort;
  • that custodial settings – where necessary – can and must be truly therapeutic and rehabilitative to be effective;
  • and that a socially just system of responding to young people’s problematic behaviours must be framed by principles of care, responsibility and relationship.

This important conversation will continue through a series of forthcoming events and discussion… stay tuned!