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

2020 Network wrap up

The pre-covid world…

Back in February, we got together in person with drinks and nibbles to host the launch of the Local Time Design Guide for Victoria.

Dr Sanne Oostermeijer and Matthew Dwyer’s award-winning Local Time Design Guide outlines a new architectural model for youth justice facilities that are ‘small-scale, integrated in the local community, therapeutic and capable of differentiated security’. The Design Guide acts as a starting point for discussions with your local stakeholders, community organisations and government.

We hope that you find it useful as an advocacy tool that shows there are much better alternatives than supermax youth jails located away from community.


Our final in person event for the year was a research workshop in March: The futur

e of Youth Justice: Collaborating for change with lessons from the Netherlands. It was part of the series of events we had planned for 2020 before the pandemic struck.

The workshop took the form of a small symposium involving Government and practitioner partners across the justice and legal sector, who provided important input and gauged appetite for – and canvassed potential barriers to – implementation of small-scale, community-based, therapeutic youth justice facilities in Victoria.

We hope to continue with this work in leading the ongoing conversation and action plan for introducing these kinds of youth justice facilities to Victoria in 2021.

Changing to an online world

Later in March, we found ourselves adapting to the fast changing world of lockdowns, often poor home internet connection, too many Zoom meetings, webinars and ‘ISO check ins’.

Our friends at WorthASecondChance hosted a series of video community check ins, which included conversations with Fleur, Diana Johns (our network co-convenor), and Sanne:

Iso community check in with Fleur Souverein back in Amsterdam

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Iso Community Check in: what kind of criminal justice system do we want for the future?


Can small Scale Youth Justice Facilities work in Victoria?


Diana was also part of an online panel discussion with other members of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Criminology’s (ANZSOC) newly formed Thematic Group on Children and Young People in the Criminal Justice SystemThe myth of the ‘child offender’ – a panel event.

Panelists explored recent examples of ‘the myth of the child offender’ and considered concrete ways to challenge this myth, to deepen our understanding of the complexities it hides, to bring about better outcomes for children.

Our network also co-hosted an online panel event: How can we build culturally safer and relationally stronger schools? The panel, moderated by our network co-convenor Sophie Rudolph, reflected on the challenges and opportunities for building stronger and safer schools to support and value young people.

Network advocacy

During the pandemic, we issued a Statement in solidarity with communities affected by police violence and racism. We stood in solidarity with communities in Australia and the United States that have experienced and witnessed violence and racism, resulting in trauma and death.

Our network joined the 350 criminal justice experts to endorse an important open letter to all Australian Attorneys General and Corrections Ministers. It urged their immediate action to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in Australian prisons and criminal justice systems, noting that this requires information, independent monitoring and release from prison and youth detention centres.

We also joined 40 other organisations as well as justice advocates and academics, to endorse a joint submission to the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 . Of particular concern was the issue around restrictions being put in place in some youth detention centres in Australia which  have meant that children cannot have face to face visits and likely have limited access to face-to-face education other support services:

Renewed call for urgent Aus government action on COVID-19 in places of detention

We continued to be part of the campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility: Why we support the national call to #RaiseTheAge

RTA national

Collaborating for better outcomes for young people

This year we continued our collaboration with the Koorie Youth Council with Sophie’s reflection on the education implications of the Ngaga_dji , report in:

Sophie Rudolph Ngaga-dji, a call to action: education justice and youth imprisonment The Australian Educational Researcher (2020).

Sophie also contributed to a special digital edition of Overland, a collection of responses from our partner academics and practitioners across a range of disciplines exploring applications for the findings of the Ngadi-Dji Report:

Sophie Rudolph and Melitta Hogarth Taking history, racism and community seriously in education, Reflections on Ngaga-dji: Listening for Change, Overland, 2020.

More articles from the edition here.

Upcoming research projects in 2021

We are thrilled to announce that Sophie has been awarded Australian Research Council (ARC) funding for a three-year DECRA (Discovery Early Career Research Award) fellowship to explore school discipline and racialised exclusion! Read about her research project here: New research fellowship to address the school to prison pipeline in Victoria

Meanwhile, Diana is part of an interdisciplinary research team – with other network members – that has been awarded seed funding by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute. This team will be developing recommendations for violence prevention programs for justice-involved young women. Participants in the research will include victim-survivors who have been exposed to the criminal justice system, youth advocates and front-line violence prevention and youth support staff.

And Diana’s work with her #UbuntuTeam partners – including community organisations AAFRO and Afri-Aus Care – will continue into 2021 with exciting developments to be announced soon! The team will be presenting at the African Youth Justice Forum to be held in Melbourne on 17 December 2020.

Learning globally for better outcomes for young people

This is a guest blog by Matt Dwyer who recently was awarded a 2020 Churchill Fellowship to document the architectural design of a new youth custodial model.

I’m very excited for the opportunity of a Churchill Fellowship, in which I’ll study the design of small-scale youth custody facilities in New York City, Missouri, New Zealand and England. 

These jurisdictions share similarities with our own, yet they offer some examples of small-scale and community integrated custodial facilities that we can learn much from in Australia. 

With my research partner and Local Time co-designer, Dr Sanne Oostermeijer, I’ve previously studied custodial designs in the Netherlands, Spain and Norway, and I’ll be looking to compare those approaches with these further jurisdictions.

There is a strong evidence base which informs how youth justice facilities should be designed to improve the outcomes and wellbeing of young people in custody, improve the working conditions of Youth Justice staff, and improve public safety through reducing the risk of reoffending. 

Small and community integrated models for youth custody provide opportunities to build and strengthen existing social supports, giving the best chance of avoiding reoffending. These facilities are safer for both young people and staff, and provide an environment where the strengths of young people can be encouraged and developed, while risks can be addressed in a lasting way. They also dramatically improve the working conditions of Youth Justice staff.

It is also important that small-scale facilities provide a model for reducing the overall size of the custodial system. As we invest in preventative approaches and reduce the number of children entering custody, the physical infrastructure must be downsized to reflect this reduction. New York City offers an example of this in its Close to Home project, which I hope to study in detail.

Ultimately, the design of a custodial facility is about encouraging and supporting good relationships between people – between staff and young people inside, and young people and their communities outside. By keeping young people close to home and connected with those people who offer them support and healing, the design of a facility can offer real help. I look forward to learning exactly how this is realised.

Matt Dwyer

Sanne and Matt at the launch of their Local Time design guide for Victoria earlier this year.

Learn more about Local Time and the Design Guide which outlines a scheme for a new architectural model for youth justice facilities in Victoria here.

New research fellowship to address the school to prison pipeline in Victoria

Dr Sophie Rudolph

Our JYP network is thrilled to announce that our network co-convenor Dr Sophie Rudolph, Senior Lecturer, Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne has  been awarded a three year DECRA research fellowship to explore school discipline and racialised exclusion:

Examining the social, historical and political effects of school discipline:

This project aims to examine the history and socio-political context of the school element of the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ in Victoria through an examination of school discipline. This project expects to build vital knowledge of the relationship between school discipline and racialised school exclusion through historical accounts, policy analysis, interviews and focus group research.

Expected outcomes include new understanding of the social, historical and political effects of school discipline and new possibilities for strengthening school-community relations. This should provide significant benefits, such as improved opportunities for school participation, and enhanced local and international networks to address education equity.

As tweeted last night by our network co-convenor, Dr Diana Johns, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Melbourne, we congratulate Sophie for the fellowship award and look forward to following her important research over the next three years.

Learn more about Sophie’s research fellowship here and follow our blog for updates on her research.