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Social Policy

Youth Justice: The power to be positive

21 Mar 2017, by Informa


The Juvenile Justice Summit will take place in May at the Swissotel Sydney.

Attendees can expect to hear from a host of key speakers across the topic including the Children’s Court perspective from the Presidents of both the Children’s Court of Victoria and the Children’s Court of NSW. Case studies will be presented from the Northland Precinct Action Group, the Youth on Track Program, Save the Children Tasmania, the NSW Central Coast’s Children’s Court Assistance Scheme and Parkville College. Practical insights will be provided by Mission Australia on tackling youth homelessness as well as the Designing Out Crime Research Centre looking at whether a physical design of the detention facility matters in juvenile detention. In addition, Magistrate Jennifer Bowles, 2014 Churchill Fellow, will delve into her work on residential therapeutic transport options for young people suffering substance abuse/mental health.

Dr Diana Johns, Lecturer in Criminology from the University of Melbourne will also be speaking at the Juvenile Justice Conference and Friday 5th May on ‘The Power to be Positive: Modelling Behaviour, Building Relationships with Justice-involved Young People’. Here, she talks more about her presentation topic, engaging youths journeying through the system and what she wishes she could change about the juvenile justice system in Australia.

Can you tell us a little about your professional background?

I joined the University of Melbourne in early 2016 as a Lecturer in Criminology, having completed my PhD there in 2013 on men’s experience of release from prison. I have been writing a book based on that research, called ‘Being and Becoming an Ex-Prisoner’, which is due to be published in August this year as part of the Routledge International Series on Desistance and Rehabilitation.

I spent 2015 in Wales, UK, doing postdoctoral research on young people’s prolific offending for the Welsh Centre for Crime and Social Justice and the Youth Justice Board Cymru (Wales). What struck me about researching this group of 100+ young people were the similarities with the backgrounds of many of the men I had interviewed in my PhD research. These were the same stories of children brutalised, marginalised and/or ignored, who end up as young people in the justice system and, later, as adults in the prison system. So my research interests in how people – often with complicated and difficult histories – experience contact with the justice system span a wide range of issues: from men’s post-prison reintegration,  to diversion and restorative justice in youth justice settings, to encounters between police and young people.

I have spent over 15 years researching criminal justice issues, particularly focused on young people. Most recently, in 2016, with colleagues from RMIT, I was involved in the evaluation of the Youth Diversion Pilot Program for the Children’s Court of Victoria. I also have experience working in the field – in support roles with long-term unemployed people, with young people with disabilities in transition to post-secondary education, and as a volunteer Independent Third Person supporting people with cognitive impairment in contact with police. I currently teach subjects about prisons and punishment, young people crime and justice, and criminal justice research. I previously worked at RMIT University where I taught in the Justice and Legal Studies program.

At the conference you will speak on ‘The power to be positive: Modelling behaviour, building relationships with justice-involved young people’ – can you tell us some more about this topic and some of the points attendees can expect to be examined during this presentation?

So many interactions between adults in authority and young people who come into contact with the justice system are framed negatively, and this can have the effect of shaping young people’s sense of themselves as unworthy or unwanted, as ‘problems’ to be ‘managed’. These interactions can range from the seemingly benign – such as referring to ‘young offenders’ – to the brutalising treatment of children in custody such as in Don Dale. I will be talking about how we might recognise these interactions as a continuum of harm – potentially harmful to young people, their families and communities and the community at large. Recognising this continuum of harm creates an opportunity to think about a different approach to young people involved with the justice system, one that places the principle of ‘do no harm’ at the front and centre of all interactions.


An approach to youth justice framed by a ‘do no harm’ ethos is one where positive behaviour is modelled throughout the community and young people are given power – as emerging adult citizens – and support to create positive futures for themselves. I will draw on case studies from my research to explain what such an approach might look like in practice.

Why is it important to engage with young people as they journey through the system and give some power back to them?

If we accept that the purpose of youth justice intervention is to steer or guide young people away from offending and towards more positive lifestyles, to reduce the likelihood that they will offend in future, then that intervention needs to clearly communicate and demonstrate the kind of behaviour we want young people to emulate. To allow young people to take responsibility for their behaviour, as emerging adults and young citizens, means treating them as emerging adults and young citizens.

My research has shown that the most effective way of working with a young person involved in serious, prolific and/or persistent offending is a flexible strengths-based approach that emphasises these key elements:

  • Relationships based on trust, belief and respect;
  • Boundaries that are clear, consistent and flexible;
  • Involving young people in the ‘work’ with them; and
  • Persisting with young people in the face of their persistence (i.e. sticking with them).

This work needs to be based on a deep understanding of the young person and their social context, engaging with them as a fellow human being.


What is most concerning to you about the current juvenile justice system in Australia?

Most concerning to me is the way in which media narratives – exaggerating the extent and rate of young people’s offending – trigger punitive, reactive government responses that do little to address the causes of offending. The evidence about declining rates of youth offending, Victoria’s long history of progressive youth justice practice (eg the dual track system), and how and why effective youth justice practices work to engage young people – and thereby reduce reoffending risk – is given little oxygen in the public sphere. It is very difficult to dislodge populist faith in a punitive penal system amid such a climate of disproportionate fear.

If you had three wishes which could change the current juvenile justice system, what would they be?

  1. A broad-based policy agenda to end youth detention (looking to the Taylor review of youth justice in the UK for ideas about secure colleges and schools instead of youth prisons).
  2. Raising the minimum age for imprisonment to 21, with the new youth prison re-designated a transitional young adult facility for those aged 21-25.
  3. A commitment by the government to frame youth justice in squarely rehabilitative and restorative terms with an emphasis on diversion and positive youth development.

(Yes, I’m a dreamer!)

Who are you looking forward to hearing from at the conference?  

I’m looking forward to engaging with so many speakers with positive ideas at the conference, but I’m particularly keen to keen about Jennifer Bowles’ findings and recommendations from her Churchill Fellowship, and to hear from Judge Peter Johnstone of the Children’s Court of NSW about diversionary and community-based options for children and young people.

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