Cover photo of Social Policy Journal

"Preventing Youth Crime: The Challenge Beyond Diversion"


Meredith Osmand
Policy Advisor
Social Policy Agency

This conference on youth crime was jointly organised by the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council of New South Wales and the Australian Institute of Criminology. The aims of the conference were: to raise awareness and discussion of issues impacting on youth crime; to consider alternative methods of preventing, or minimising youth crime; and to encourage participation of government, community-based and private sector organisations in co-operative ventures aimed at preventing youth crime.


Conference themes can be divided into: crime prevention strategies; community-based activities which include schools and community policing etc.; models of intervention and programmes following offending; the importance of outcome evaluation; and aboriginal offending. This conference overview will draw out the critical social policy issues which arose during the plenary sessions and workshops attended by the writer in each of these theme areas.

The Hon. Hal Wootten, AC, QC, former Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, opened the conference with a challenging address. He spoke of his experience with koori (aboriginals) while investigating deaths in custody and of other experiences involving aboriginal offenders. This work reinforced the importance of respecting cultural difference and identity, which became a powerful theme in his address and is clearly a significant issue for koori.

He also acknowledged the complex causal factors associated with offending and provided a brief overview of the three prevailing models for responding to offending. The welfare model, focusing on "adverse and unfair social conditions predisposing people to commit crime", the justice model which focuses on "the individual as a responsible agent freely choosing criminal behaviour", and finally the restorative model which "emphasises the restoration of social harmony after its disruption by criminal act". Wootton believes that it is unrealistic to promote merely the welfare of justice model. While supportive of the restorative model he was cautious of its appropriateness where there is cultural difference between the offender, and the victim, and state representatives. His view is ably represented by the following quote in his speech:

"By all means let us remember that criminal conduct lies at the end of a road along which the offender has often made numerous choices to go in a particular direction, but let us also remember that many factors beyond the individual's control set him or her on the road, and defined the choices available and the degree of knowledge and the consequences that attended the choices".

As the opening speaker, Wootton's address opened up a number of issues for further consideration during the conference. These included the range of models for juvenile justice and their appropriate application, the tragic consequences of separating children from their cultural and family roots, and the difficulty of managing juvenile justice systems in the face of community demands for simple solutions to what is a complex problem. He concluded by urging delegates to have the:

"courage to stand up against those who want to deny or treat as irrelevant the social factors that contribute to the delinquency and criminalisation of children and young people, or who believe that further dehumanisation is the cure for those who have lost their way in society".

Crime Prevention

Jon Bright of Crime Concern, the United Kingdom's national crime prevention development organisation, outlined the essential components of a strategy for preventing youth crime. He made the important distinction between preventing crime and preventing criminality. To date he believes that the emphasis has been on preventing crime through reducing opportunities, increasing policing and preventing revictimisation. What has been lacking is the actual prevention of anti-social behaviour and criminalty which necessarily involves strengthening the three main influences on children and young people, namely their family, school and community.

"The aim is to reduce the risk factors associated with offending such as poor parenting and school failure and enhance protective factors such as good parenting and school success".

While support can be provided to families in crisis, or in need of home-based support or services such as parenting programmes, the community and schools also have a significant role to play in diverting young people from delinquent behaviour. Bright's presentation confirmed the direction being taken in New Zealand, which includes the focus on both actual and potential offenders and victims. It also reinforced the interrelationship between multi-problem families and youth at risk of offending, as key areas in any crime prevention strategy.

The New Zealand crime prevention strategy highlights the essential role of education in diverting young people from developing the characteristics typical of offenders, which include low educational achievement, lack of skills for employment and limited social and communication skills. However, this will not be turned around unless schools enter into a partnership with families and communities to address the problem. A crime prevention focus within education, which is limited to curriculum, will not achieve the changes required to impact on this group of young people.

One particular youth crime prevention initiative involved the establishment of the Community Support Task Force by the Premier of New South Wales to address "youth lawlessness" in three rural New South Wales towns. The task force consisted of multi-agency representation and was given a broad social policy mandate. Throughout the consultation the Task Force heard the traditional call for wider police powers and harsher penalties for offenders. However the community consensus was that the solutions lay within the family structure and the broader community. The final recommendations dealt with improving co-ordination and service delivery, assisting families, minimising violence and alcohol use, developing constructive activities for young people and improving the juvenile justice system.

Community Based Initiatives

The conference provided a venue for the presentation of a side range of youth focussed programmes. These ranged from special state funding for specific local initiatives, drug and alcohol programmes, housing estate and youth law projects, to Police clubs and education programmes to reduce peer abuse in schools and work skills training. This type of response is most appropriate for the wide ranging "youth at risk" group of young people rather than those who are actively involved in offending.

Once again there was a significant focus on schools with concern being expressed at how schools are dealing with disruptive and violent young people, and how their rights are often violated by the actions taken by the educational authorities. Robert Ludbrook, previously of the Auckland Youth Law Project and for the past 12 months with the National Children's and Youth Law Centre in Sydney, outlined his concerns about the "impression ..that violence in schools is rapidly increasing, and that the situation is approaching crisis proportions". His research has shown that physical violence has declined while verbal abuse is on the increase. However he believes the moral panic on this issue is inappropriate as "the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics suggests that children are ten times safer in school than they are in the general community". He is concerned about the increased power of principals to exclude violent pupils and the rapidly increasing rate of exclusions occurring. Similar concerns have been expressed in New Zealand and further understanding of this issue is urgently required.

Many of the initiatives were interesting but are not new to New Zealand. Clearly there needs to be a commitment from a range of agencies, with both funding and expertise, in order for new youth-focused initiatives to succeed. The co-ordination of funding for such initiatives remains an issue in New Zealand where there is widespread multi-agency involvement, with a limited overview perspective.

Working With Young Offenders

Two of the workshops presented particular challenges regarding the management of two groups of young offenders, the recidivist offender and the female offender, which are worthy of further consideration within the New Zealand context.

Recidivist Offenders

Bette Bradtke, Social Work Supervisor in the South Australian Department of Family and Community Service presented a social profile of recidivist offenders. She had undertaken an analysis of young offenders who appeared before the court for more than eight finalised appearances and reviewed 25 files to identify the common factors. The profile of these young people which emerged presented a disturbing picture of family dysfunction, deaths of family members and friends, physical and sexual abuse, school failure, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide attempts and deaths, prostitution and self-mutilation, homelessness, care under various legal provisions and incarceration.

Bradtke raises a number of critical issues for the management of recidivist offenders and for crime prevention. She found that:

"The total picture of the children studied in this research however, is one of a group of children who have survived not only abusive upbringings but have experienced the compounded effect of multiple social disadvantage".

A critical issue which arose was the extent of grief and loss experienced by the young people and the apparent lack of counselling or assistance provided. She also observed the increased intervention focus on "measurable outputs – it is possible to measure if a child attends a particular programme, whereas it is much more difficult (certainly in the short term) to measure if the child is undergoing any psychological change". Concurrent with this development has been the organisational role change from case worker to case manager which ensures task completion but does not involve any oversight or assessment of the actual outcome for the young person. Bradtke's view is that "the traumatic childhoods which the children experienced, suggests that in fact the child's ability to make changes would have been impaired".

The number of young women in the analysis was believed to be consistent with their under-representation throughout the juvenile justice system, but it showed that their reaction to abusive and disadvantaged backgrounds was different to the males. Young women tend to:

"inflect their anger and disappointment on themselves rather than on society. This results in young women being more likely to become self-mutilating, entering prostitution, abusing prescription drugs, and entering marriage and parenthood at a very young age".

This difference raises the issue of sibling research to ascertain why some, having grown up in the same family environment, grow up to neither offend nor become self-destructive. Further issues relating to the management of young women are raised in the next overview of the paper presented by Alder.

From a New Zealand perspective, there is wide spread consensus that the youth justice provisions within the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 are appropriate for the management of most young offenders. The blend of the justice model with a restorative focus for intervention continues to stand up well to the rigours of criminological analysis. There do remain, however, some critical questions as to whether current practice is adequate for recidivist offenders, many of whom will have had similar experiences to those noted in Bradtke's analysis. Many of these young people are unable to be effectively held accountable for their offending behaviour and the welfare/justice split may well result in their wide-ranging needs not being addressed in a comprehensive manner. Further work in this area is required to ensure that the youth justice system is appropriately identifying and referring cases where significant social and psychological factors are present which will prevent a successful youth justice outcome.

Female Offenders

Christine Alder, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Melbourne outlined the extent to which young women offenders are often overlooked in the juvenile justice system due to their small numbers when compared to young males. The recent separation of care and youth justice in Victoria has significantly reduced the numbers of young women being held in secure detention and has resulted in the need to re-evaluate their management within the system.

Alder found that most programmes were focused toward young men but "allowed" young women to attend, with the result being that the programmes and management practices were not as suitable for the young women. Within this environment the young women believed the males would get a better deal and staff expressed a preference for working with young men who were seen as easier to manage. Examples include staff management of conflict amongst residents which is more confrontational than negotiated, curriculum and activities which are more traditionally male, and the differing perceptions, based on gender, of acceptable behaviour.

Alder believes that there needs to be a range of programmes available for young women, which may include mixed gender centres. However there is a real need to analyse and establish the differing needs of young women offenders and to ensure there are specific programmes to address their needs.

In New Zealand the number of young women coming to notice for offending is also small. While the youth justice system provides for individualised plans for each young person, it is unclear whether there is any understanding about the specific needs of young women who offend. Youth justice residences all run mixed gender programmes which may well be focused toward the dominant male population. Alder and others in Victoria are planning to continue to research this area and it would be appropriate for the Department of Social Welfare to liaise on developments.


Dr Janet Chan, Senior Lecturer in Social Science and Policy at the University of New South Wales emphasised the importance of evaluating crime prevention initiatives in order to clearly establish the actual outcome.

She outlined a number of "unintended consequences which may result: an increased fear of crime in the community; displacement of crime to another area; and the "free rider effect" which results in other areas benefiting from the initiative". It is also important to gain an understanding of the conditions under which programmes are most successful so that optimal results are achieved. Too often schemes are transplanted to other areas in the hope that they will be successful. Evaluation will highlight the essential theory, method and programme components which contribute to success.


It is apparent that Australian policy development and service delivery is failing to meet the needs of koori. The conference organisers received criticism from koori delegates for failing to give adequate priority during the plenary sessions to aboriginal issues. This issue was also raised at a previous conference which I attended in 1992, and it would appear that the conference organisers, and the bureaucracy, have failed to give adequate attention to this issue.

Interest in Australia remains high regarding the New Zealand youth justice provisions, but there was no real debate about models for intervention or the variations on family group conferencing which are being established throughout the Australian states. The prevailing debate was more focused on the two ends of the continuum, early intervention and prevention within the community, and programmes and services following offending.

There are a number of challenges for New Zealand arising from the conference. Firstly in the extent to which the New Zealand crime prevention strategy is implemented at both government department and community levels. It will be important that two areas receive attention: the co-ordination of funding for youth focused programmes and that the current youth justice programme receives widespread support at all levels to maintain the diversion of young people from the criminal justice system.

Secondly, there are two groups of young people within the system who require further attention. The recidivist offender causes widespread community and professional concern and it is apparent that further understanding of their particular needs is required to respond more appropriately. This comment is not intended to suggest that the youth justice provisions are inadequate, but that a more comprehensive approach is necessary to achieve a successful outcome. Young women at risk of offending, or who are in the system also require further attention in view of the predominantly male focus which has been adopted to date.

Finally, in order to gain community support for crime prevention and youth focused initiatives, it will be important to establish monitoring systems which provide data to guide decision making about new programmes and initiatives, and to report on outcomes achieved. Without this type of approach the community will continue to be alarmed about the behaviour of New Zealand youth and remain misled as to the extent of the problem.


All quotes are taken from conference papers and presentations.

Alder, C. (1994) "Delinquency Prevention with Young Women and Working with Young Women".

Bright, J. (1994) "Preventing Youth Crime – Towards a Strategy".

Bradtke, B. (1994) "Social Profile of Recidivist Offenders – Implications for Crime Prevention".

Chan, J. (1994) "Evaluation of Crime prevention Initiatives".

Ludbrook, R. (1994) "Interface of the School System and the Juvenile Justice System".

Schwagger, J. (1994) "Crime Prevention in New South Wales".

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 02

"Preventing Youth Crime: The Challenge Beyond Diversion"

Jul 1994

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