Should youth offenders face harsher penalties for crime?

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Many think youth crime has gotten out of control.

There’s been plenty of attention on what’s been dubbed a  ‘youth crime wave’ in Victoria, with teenagers of African descent blamed for a series of robberies, muggings and worse. But, the unusual situation in Victoria aside, statistics show we are fairing a lot better than a decade ago on youth crime.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), youth crime in 2015-2016 decreased across the board compared with 2008-2009. Homicide-related offences fell 69 per cent and property damage and environmental pollution both dropped 49 per cent. But there was a 52 per cent increase in sexual assault, and drug-related offences rose by 49 per cent.

The most common offence committed by youngsters was theft, which comprised 35 per cent of all youth crime, half of which was for public transport fare evasion.

And data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed there was a steady decline in the number of young people under youth justice supervision – in the community as well as in detention – with 5,500 under supervision on an average day in 2015-16, down from almost 7,000 in 2011-12.

While the numbers indicate that there is less youth crime today than there was 10 or fewer years ago, many insist that young criminals are far more common now than was the case 1950s,’60s and earlier.

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Of course, there was still crime in those years, but parents felt they could allow their children to play in the street and at a park, catch public transport and visit the beach without fearing they would be recruited into a youth crime gang or targeted by young criminals for theft or violence.

Some say, as one angry Townsville resident wrote on a petition calling for harsher penalties for youth crime, that “young criminals get better treatment than our pensioners”, with stays in cushy detention centres that aren’t a true deterrent to misbehaviour.

But others, such as the Queensland Law Society (QLS), argue that an overall ‘tough on crime’ approach to young people doesn’t reduce offending, and that targeted interventions aimed at the small group of repeat offenders were more effective than instituting policies that could turn a one-off offender into a habitual one.

So what are the basic arguments for and against harsher penalties for young criminals?


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For harsher penalties:

People who’ve seen the effects youth crime on their neighbourhood are often the strongest advocates for harsh penalties. They often argue that harsher penalties will deter people from trying their hand at crime in the first place, as well as keeping repeat offenders off the streets for longer. 

Only recently the Victorian Parliament introduced new laws that will see some young offenders tried as adults, a move that was criticised by human rights groups. The laws mean that teens aged 16 and older who are charged with aggravated home invasion and aggravated carjacking face adult courts and receive adult sentences. These changes occurred in the wake of a lot of youth uprisings in youth detention centres.

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Against harsher penalties:

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People who say harsher penalties won’t curb youth crime. Some, such as the QLS, believe the focus should be on support and rehabilitation services that educate offenders. Many believe a number of youth crimes are committed out of boredom, which is why the government has special education and training programs to try and get younger offenders working and earning.

Others point out, as did a paper published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2011, that it is the maltreatment of children that creates youth offenders, and that helping children and teenagers escape abusive family situations is of paramount importance.

“Children and young people who have progressed deeper into the juvenile justice system are more likely to have experienced abuse and neglect, have mental health problems and be developmentally delayed,” the paper said. “The research literature provides a quite consistent picture of the link between abuse and neglect and offending.”

What do you think is the most effective deterrent on youth crime? Should we focus on rehabilitation or make the penalties harsher?

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