Australian Institute of Criminology

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The challenges of juvenile crime

Media Release

23 February 2011

The Australian Institute of Criminology AIC today released research on the unique challenges of juveniles in the criminal justice system.

The research was funded by the Australasian Juvenile Justice Administrators (AJJA).

"Responding to juvenile offenders who, by definition are under the age of 18, is a unique policy and practice challenge," author and AIC research analyst Dr Kelly Richards said.

"While juveniles, because of a number of unique factors, may come into contact with the criminal justice system, they also have a strong capacity for rehabilitation."

A substantial proportion of crime is perpetuated by juveniles, but most ‘grow out’ of offending and adopt law-abiding lifestyles as they mature.

Juvenile crimes are generally offences against property, rather than against the person: graffiti, vandalism, shoplifting and fare evasion.

Juveniles are not only offenders but also disproportionately the victims of crime - in 2007, young females between 10 and 14 years had the highest recorded rate of sexual assault at 544 per 100,000.

Factors such as lack of maturity, propensity to take risks and susceptibility to peer influence, as well as intellectual disability and mental illness, increase juveniles’ risks of contact with the criminal justice system.

"These factors, combined with juveniles’ unique capacity to be rehabilitated, can require intensive and often expensive interventions by the juvenile justice system.

"As juvenile offenders are highly diverse, this diversity should be considered in any response to juvenile crime. A number of key strategies such as non-custodial sentencing, restorative justice and therapeutic jurisprudence exist in Australia to respond effectively to juvenile crime," Dr Richards said.

AIC media contact: Colin Campbell 02 6260 9244 / 0418 159 525

Summary

What makes juvenile offenders different from adult offenders?

This paper argues that responding to juvenile crime is a unique challenge. Juveniles (10 to 17 year olds) on the whole "grow out" of offending, although a small core have repeated interaction with the criminal justice system. Juveniles have a set of crime types directly linked to their age and social status. A number of key strategies exist to respond effectively to juvenile crime.

While the criminal justice system treats juvenile offenders quite separately and less harshly that their adult counterparts, young people (aged 15-19) were four times more likely to offend than those over 19.

It is widely accepted that crime is committed disproportionately by young people. Persons aged 15-19 are more likely to be processed by police for the commission of a crime than are members of any other population group.

Juvenile crimes are generally offences against property, rather than against the person: graffiti, vandalism, shoplifting and fare evasion.

Juveniles are more likely to come to police attention because they: are less experienced in crime; commit offences in groups, in public areas, and close to where they live. They are also disproportionately represented in vehicle theft which has high reporting rates due to insurance claims.

Because of their age and developmental status, juveniles participate in risk taking and peer group behaviours, and are more vulnerable to mental health issues, alcohol and drug use. For both male and females, progression through puberty is linked to aggression and delinquency.

While juvenile crime is less costly in economic terms, interventions can be more costly. Mental problems, duty of care responsibility, schooling while incarceration occurs and intensive rehabilitation to assist the offender to "grow out of crime" add a premium, and harm can be done with ineffective and unsuitable intervention.

The juvenile justice system tends to be tilted to a welfare model. Stigmatisation is reduced with the practice of not recording convictions for a proportion of offenders who plead guilty. Also, therapeutic jurisprudence (for drug and alcohol offenders) and restorative justice programs are policies aimed at preventing reoffending.

In all Australian jurisdictions’ juvenile justice legislation, detention is considered a last resort to avoid "peer contagion" and labelling.