The intersection between the child protection and youth justice systems

CFCA Resource Sheet – July 2018

Youth justice supervision

This section gives a brief overview of the youth justice system in Australia with a particular focus on youth justice supervision. It summarises data collected on types of youth justice supervision, including rates of young people under supervision by state and territory, sex and age, Indigenous status, remoteness and socio-economic position.

Youth justice system

In Australia, the youth justice system refers to the 'set of processes and practices for managing children and young people who have committed, or allegedly committed, an offence' (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2017a, p. 3). In all states and territories, young people aged 10 years and older may be charged with an offence.3 Youth justice is typically restricted to young people aged 10–17 in Australia, though some exceptions apply.4 Until recently, youth justice in Queensland was restricted to young people aged 10–16 years. However, legislation enacted in February 2018 means that 17 year olds are now included in Queensland's youth justice system (Department of Justice and Attorney-General, 2017).5

Types of youth justice supervision

There are two main types of youth justice supervision:

  1. Community-based supervision: Young people who live in the community and are supervised by the youth justice department.
  2. Detention: Young people who are detained in a youth justice centre or detention facility.

Within these two types of supervision, young people can be under either unsentenced legal orders (charged with an offence, or found or pleaded guilty, but waiting to be sentenced) or sentenced legal orders (proven guilty in court and sentenced).

Table 1: Types of youth justice supervision
  Community-based Detention
Unsentenced supervision Home-detention bail: supervised or conditional bail Remanded in custody (can be police or court referred)
Sentenced supervision Parole or supervised release, probation or similar suspended detention Sentenced to detention

Source: AIHW, 2017a

On an average day in 2015/16, most young people in community-based supervision were under sentenced legal orders, while most of those in detention were under unsentenced legal orders, although this varies by jurisdiction. In each state and territory, legislation is based on the principle that young people should be placed in detention only as a last resort, which contributes to the higher proportion of young people supervised in the community than in detention (AIHW, 2017a).

Box 1: Measures used for numbers of young people under supervision

In reporting the numbers of young people under supervision, two types of measures are used:

  • An 'average day' is the number of young people under supervision on any given day during a financial year. It is calculated by dividing the total number of days each young person spends under supervision by the number of days in a year.
  • 'During the year' is the total number of individuals who were supervised at any time during a financial year, regardless of how many times they entered and exited the system.

In reviewing the data on youth justice supervision in Australia, it is important to note that differences in legislation, policies and practices between jurisdictions may affect the rates of young people under supervision and data collection processes, which means that the rates of youth justice involvement may not be directly comparable between states and territories (AIHW, 2017a).6

See 'Technical notes' of the AIHW report (2017a, p. 20) for more details.

Numbers of young people under supervision

The number of supervised young people varies by state and territory, age and sex, Indigenous status, remoteness and socio-economic position. In 2015/16, a total of 11,007 young people aged 10 years and older were under youth justice supervision at some point during the year. However, this is a smaller number (9,544) when restricted to young people aged 10–17 years for whom the youth justice system is typically restricted.7

Due to movements in and out of the system, about half of this number of young people aged 10–17 years (4,821) were under supervision on an average day. This equates to about one in every 476 young people in Australia. On an average day, most young people under supervision were under community-based supervision (84%), with the remainder in detention (17%).8 Over the course of the year, 44% of all supervised young people were in detention at some point.

In 2015/16, supervised young people spent, on average, a total of 182 days (about six months) under supervision. This varies by supervision type, where periods are typically longer in community-based supervision (an average of 171 days) than for detention (an average of 69 days).

As shown in Figure 1, the total number of young people aged 10–17 years under supervision during a year decreased in the five-year period from 2011/12 to 2015/16 from 11,861 to 9,544. The rate of young people under supervision during a year dropped from 52.7 young people per 10,000 to 41.5 per 10,000.

Figure 1: Young people aged 10–17 years under supervision during the year in Australia, 2011/12 to 2015/16

Figure 1: Young people aged 10–17 years under supervision during the year in Australia, 2011/12 to 2015/16

Notes: 1. The Northern Territory did not supply Juvenile Justice National Minimum Data Set (JJ NMDS) data for 2008/09 to 2015/16. 2. Includes non-standard data for the Northern Territory for 2011/12 to 2015/16. 3. Trend data may differ from those previously published due to data revisions. 4. Age calculated as at start of financial year if first period of community-based supervision in the relevant year began before the start of the financial year, otherwise age calculated as at start of first period of community-based supervision in the relevant year.
Source: Tables S10b, S45b and S83b (AIHW, 2017a)

States and territories

As shown in Figure 2, on an average day in 2015/16, 21 in every 10,000 young people aged 10–17 were under some form of supervision: 17.6 per 10,000 were in community supervision and 3.4 per 10,000 were in detention. These rates vary by jurisdiction, ranging from 13.8 per 10,000 in Victoria to 56.7 per 10,000 in the Northern Territory (AIHW, 2017a).

Figure 2: Rates of young people aged 10–17 under supervision on an average day in 2015/16 by jurisdiction.

Figure 2: Rates of young people aged 10–17 under supervision on an average day in 2015/16 by jurisdiction.

Notes: 1. Rates are number of young people per 10,000 relevant population. 2.The Northern Territory did not supply JJ NMDS data for 2015/16. 3. Includes non-standard data for the Northern Territory.
Source: Tables S4a, S39a and S77a (AIHW, 2017a)

In terms of total numbers rather than rates, New South Wales had the highest number of young people under supervision on an average day (1,494), followed by Queensland (1,466) and Victoria (1,084) (AIHW, 2017a, p. 5).

Sex and age

Males are over-represented in youth justice supervision. Most young people under supervision on an average day in 2015/16 were male (82.5%), ranging from 74% in the Australian Capital Territory to 87% in Tasmania (AIHW, 2017a). Males were about four times more likely to be under supervision than females on an average day.

Most young people under supervision were aged 14–17 (79%), with 16 year olds representing the highest number (1,364) and rates (47 per 10,000) of all age groups. Young people aged 10–13 years represented 9% of young people under supervision and those aged 18 or older represented 12%. Again, this varies by state and territory, which is partly due to differences in processes between jurisdictions.

The difference between males and females in offending behaviours—typically known as the gender gap in crime—has been a topic of sustained research and theoretical debate (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996). Researchers have largely focused on various social and cultural factors that influence male and female behaviours to help explain the gender gap in crime (Gault-Sherman, 2013; Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996). For example, Steffensmeier and Allan (1996) explain this gender difference in terms of what limits female offending but encourages male offending. This approach focuses on how differences between males and females in gender roles, social pressures, physical strength (perceived or actual), and opportunities to offend mean that females are less likely to offend than males and are far less likely to be involved in serious crimes (e.g. violent crimes) than males.

Based on their review of the evidence, Kerig and Becker (2015) suggest that females may engage in more covert forms of antisocial or offending behaviours that avoid the attention of legal authorities. Other researchers have offered alternative explanations for the gender gap that have focused on developmental differences between males and females that occur during adolescence and early adulthood (Shulman, Harden, Chein, & Steinberg, 2015). In their analysis of longitudinal data, Shulman and colleagues (2015) found that males have higher levels of sensation seeking (e.g. desire for new and exciting experiences) and lower impulse control than females during adolescence and early adulthood, which suggests that young males engage in riskier behaviours and with less self-control than young females.

Indigenous young people

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are over-represented in youth justice supervision. On an average day in 2015/16, Indigenous young people were 17 times more likely than non-Indigenous young people to be under supervision. Indigenous young people represented 48% of all young people under supervision, despite representing less than 6% of all young people in Australia. This is even higher for those in detention where more than half of young people were Indigenous (59%), making them 25 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous young people.

Indigenous over-representation in youth justice supervision varied by jurisdiction, with Tasmania recording the lowest rate of over-representation (three times more likely) and Western Australia recording the highest (27 times more likely). While the overall proportion of Indigenous young people under supervision has decreased between 2011/12 and 2015/16 from 203 to 184 per 10,000, it has decreased at a slower rate than for non-Indigenous young people. This means that Indigenous over-representation has increased during this period (AIHW, 2017a), despite total numbers decreasing (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: The over-representation of Indigenous young people under youth justice supervision

Figure 3: The over-representation of Indigenous young people under youth justice supervision

Notes: 1. The Northern Territory did not supply JJ NMDS data for 2011/12 to 2015/16. 2. Includes non-standard data for the Northern Territory for 2011/12 to 2015/16. 3. Trend data may differ from those previously published due to data revisions. 4. Rates are number of young people per 10,000 relevant population.
Source: Table S12a (AIHW, 2017a)

Box 2: Why are Indigenous young people over-represented in the youth justice system?

The reasons why Indigenous young people are over-represented in the youth justice system are multiple and complex, and include a range of social and economic disadvantages (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, 2011; Muirhead & Johnston, 1991; Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017). This over-representation can be considered on two inter-related levels:

  • offending patterns and criminal justice system responses
  • underlying issues contributing to offending patterns and criminal justice responses.

When considering offending patterns and criminal justice responses, some factors that contribute to over-representation (Blagg, Morgan, Cunneen, & Ferrante, 2005; Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017) include:

  • offending behaviours that are more likely to lead to imprisonment or supervision for Indigenous young people compared to non-Indigenous young people
  • a greater likelihood of coming into contact with police and justice systems for Indigenous peoples, including the over-policing of Aboriginal communities
  • legislation that has a disproportionate impact on Indigenous young people than non-Indigenous young people, such as mandatory sentencing laws for property offences
  • lower levels of access to legal or other social support services for Indigenous peoples.

When considering the underlying issues contributing to offending patterns and criminal justice responses, a range of social, economic and cultural disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people can be identified (Muirhead & Johnston, 1991; Productivity Commission, 2016; Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017). More fundamentally, these disadvantages are widely recognised as the continuing effects of colonisation and a history of government policies of segregation, assimilation and control (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [HREOC], 1997; Muirhead & Johnston, 1991). These issues (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, 2011; HREOC, 1997; Productivity Commission, 2016; Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017) include:

  • loss of autonomy and disempowerment
  • systemic racism
  • intergenerational trauma resulting from forced removals of Aboriginal children from their families
  • high rates of poverty
  • lower levels of education and employment
  • high rates of mental illness
  • high rates of substance abuse
  • high rates of child maltreatment and family violence
  • high rates of involvement in the child protection system.

These underlying issues and their complex interactions mean that Indigenous young people are at greater risk of offending and coming into contact with the criminal justice system than non-Indigenous young people.

For information about what works to reduce Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system, see the Doing Time – Time For Doing report (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, 2011).

Remoteness and socio-economic position

Young people from geographically remote areas9 and low socio-economic positions10 are over-represented in youth justice supervision. On an average day in 2015–16, young people from remote areas were six times more likely to be under youth justice supervision than those from major cities (89 per 10,000 compared to 14 per 10,000). This is even greater for very remote areas, where young people are 10 times more likely to be under youth justice supervision (139 per 10,000). Similarly, young people from the lowest socio-economic areas were about six times more likely to be under supervision compared to those from the highest socio-economic areas (38 per 10,000 compared to six per 10,000).

Similar to the gender gap, discussed above, the relationship between socio-economic disadvantage and offending is a topic of debate among researchers. Some have argued that socio-economic disadvantage weakens a community's ability to control anti-social behaviours in their neighbourhood, while others have argued that it weakens the capacity of parents to provide quality parenting (Weatherburn & Lind, 2006). In their analysis of New South Wales data, Weatherburn and Lind (2006) argue that socio-economic disadvantage weakens both community capacity and parenting quality in ways that increase the prevalence of child neglect, which in turn leads to greater offending behaviours (see What is the Link Between Child Maltreatment and Youth Offending?).

3 In its final report, the Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory recommended that ‘Section 38(1) of the Criminal Code Act (NT) be amended to provide that the age of criminal responsibility be 12 years’ (Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017, p. 46). However, at the time of writing, legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to 12 years has not changed in the Northern Territory.

4 As noted in AIHW (2017a): ‘Some young people aged 18 and older are also involved in the youth justice system. This may be due to the offence being committed when the young person was aged 17 or younger, the continuation of supervision once they turn 18, or in some cases because of vulnerability or immaturity. Also, in Victoria, some young people aged 18–20 may be sentenced to detention in a youth facility under the state’s ‘dual track’ sentencing system, which is intended to prevent young people from entering the adult prison system at an early age.’ (p. 3).

5 For more information, see the Queensland Government website: http://justice.qld.gov.au/corporate/business-areas/youth-justice/inclusion-of-17-year-old-persons

6 For more details, see information on the Juvenile Justice National Minimum Data Set available on the AIHW website: www.aihw.gov.au/about-our-data/our-data-collections/juvenile-justice-national-minimum-data-set

7 Because the youth justice system is typically restricted to young people aged 10–17 years, this resource sheet focuses particularly on this cohort.

8 Total percentages presented in this section do not always equal 100% due to rounding and the fact that young people may be under both types of supervision on the same day (AIHW, 2017a, p. 5).

9 AIHW data on remoteness uses the Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC) Remoteness Structure developed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). These areas are Major cities, Inner regional, Outer regional, Remote and Very remote. More information on the ASGC Remoteness Structure is available on the ABS website: www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/D3310114.nsf/home/remoteness+structure

10 AIHW data on socio-economic position uses the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) that the ABS has developed to analyse the socio-economic position of the usual residence of young people under supervision. The Index of Relative Socio-Economic Advantage and Disadvantage is used. More information is available on the ABS website: www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/2039.0