Vulnerable young people need support, not stigma

Focusing on punitive measures as a means of tackling crime deprives us of the opportunity to constructively discuss effective solutions that address the causes of alienation and disengagement young people often experience, writes Jesuit Social Services Communications Coordinator ANDREW GILLETT. 

Jesuit Social Services has been working with young people who have been involved with the justice system for over 40 years. Over this time we have learned that punitive approaches to justice are limited in their capacity to address the complex and interconnected social determinants of crime.

There are a complex range of factors that increase the chances of a young person coming into contact with the justice system. These include unstable family relationships, lack of participation in education and work, poor physical and mental health, exposure to drugs and alcohol, and a lack of positive relationships.

For people from migrant backgrounds, these factors can be compounded by difficulty adapting to the Australian education system, an inability to find employment, a lack of support programs, poverty, traumatic backgrounds, and discrimination.

We believe that programs seeking to increase feelings of belonging and social cohesion will have the best long term outcome for the individuals we work with, as well as their communities. Through our Settlement and Justice Programs, Jesuit Social Services works intensively with new migrant groups facing social exclusion and disadvantage. We deliver services that use community development and capacity building approaches to strengthen refugee and migrant communities, and when offending has occurred, restorative justice practices to help young people understand the potential harm of their actions on individuals, families and the broader community. We believe this approach promotes community safety and reduces anti-social behaviour.

Through partnerships with community leaders, we are able to identify youth who are at risk of offending, work to address the issues that are leading to their challenging behaviour, and provide pathways to education, training and employment through programs such as Navigator, which provides support for disengaged learners aged between 12 and 17 to return to education or training.

Our #JusticeSolutions research tour of the United States and Europe in 2017 affirmed our belief in the need to address the underlying causes of crime by intervening in the web of disadvantage that impacts on individuals, families and communities. We must recognise that most young people do not offend. For those young people who do come into contact with the criminal justice system we need to commit to rehabilitation as the primary purpose of the youth justice system.

Current media attention only serves to stigmatise young people from newly arrived communities and further marginalise an already vulnerable group. When negative reporting focuses on punitive measures as a means of tackling crime we miss the opportunity to constructively discuss effective solutions that address the causes of alienation and disengagement young people often experience. We must develop and expand proven approaches that strengthen community cohesion and promote positive pathways for young people who have offended, or who are at risk of offending. This is the best way to support people to lead healthy, productive and crime free lives.