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The youth detention lottery: heads you win, tails you lose

Would you ask a doctor to flip a coin to see if you’ll get a check-up and appropriate treatment?

That’s exactly what’s been happening with young people’s education and general needs inside youth detention facilities in Victoria. According to a recently released audit, over half of the young people inside did not have a completed education assessment or case plan.

From a sample of 40 young people locked up during the first half of 2017, the Auditor-General found that there was a “failure to fully assess and provide for the needs of young people in detention” and that this failure “misses a critical opportunity to positively intervene in the life of a young person who, given his or her situation, clearly needs support.”

Children and young people need holistic assessment and support while in youth detention and deserve a second chance to get their lives back on track when released. Yet in the current system there is no evidence of improvement in future offending patterns after young people come out of prison; no positive or meaningful change occurring while they are locked up.

The audit found that two-thirds of students were absent from school classes in youth detention facilities – far higher than in the community – and that the school wasn’t funded properly between 2013 and 2016.

How can we expect vulnerable children and young people to turn their lives around if we don’t teach them basic literacy and numeracy, and provide them with skills to deal with previous trauma? In short, we can’t: the audit demonstrates that there is no point locking children up and expecting them to change without providing adequate access to education and services – advantages that young people in the community receive on a daily basis.

Since 2013, the number of young people formally dealt with by police has decreased but the number of young people in detention has grown. The inability to appropriately fund or provide education and services for these young people is unacceptable.

A dysfunctional youth detention system lets down the young people it is designed to help. We have all made mistakes when we were young, and finding pathways to a positive future needs to be a key goal of the youth justice system.

While diverting young people from entering the justice system in the first place is going to be the most effective solution to make communities safer, if youth detention is the only option then appropriate assessment of individual needs and the delivery of education and of desperately needed treatment and rehabilitation programs is required. This can give young people a chance to leave the criminal justice system and create a life in our community: a chance to succeed.

A young person’s future shouldn’t be left to the flip of a coin.