Australia: Opportunities hiding amongst the issues in youth detention

As the needs in the youth justice space rapidly evolve, opportunities for service delivery abound. Amidst a series of emerging accounts of mistreatment and misconduct in correctional centres, the sector is looking to transform.

But what does it need to deliver?


There are a myriad of issues in youth detention.

  1. In July 2016, significant public interest in youth detention issues was generated by the broadcast of a Four Corners investigation into youth detention. After three days, the Commonwealth government announced a Royal Commission into youth detention in the Northern Territory. The second set of public hearings commenced on 5 December 2016. The report is due on 31 March 2017 (unless extended).
  2. Soon after, news arose about mistreatment of youths in Queensland correctional centres. The Queensland government commissioned an independent review on 19 August 2016 and a report was delivered to the government on 14 December 2016. The report is unlikely to be released until the government has considered it, which should occur from January 2017.
  3. On 3 November 2016, the Queensland Parliament legislated that 17 year-olds would be tried as children in criminal matters, bringing the youth justice system into alignment with the rest of the Australian States. The Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney-General is now formulating transition arrangements which will take effect when the Act is proclaimed late next year.
  4. Riots in early November 2016 at the Parkville Correctional Centre in Victoria caused around $1-2 million in damage. Commentators suggest that rioting was caused by a focus on therapeutic justice instead of discipline. In a move that starkly contrasted with Queensland's recent legislation, the Victorian government reclassified a secure unit of the Barwon adult prison to be a youth detention facility to house youths while Parkville was being repaired and upgraded. However, since that time, some children have been removed from the adult prison and human rights advocates have brought an action demanding the same for the remainder on the basis that the transfer was unlawful.
  5. On 1 December 2016, the National Children's Commissioner released the 2016 Children's Rights Report. The Report focuses on youth detention, calling for Australia to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to 12 years, and encourage justice reinvestment.
  6. On the same day, the Northern Territory outlawed the use of restraint chairs for youth detainees. Now only handcuffs, ankle cuffs and waist belts can be used to restrain children, in accordance with Corrections Commissioner directions.


The private sector's offering in the correctional facilities space is under review. Recently, in the course of tendering for services for the John Morony Correctional Centre in New South Wales, the NSW government allowed its own department to bid against the private sector. The results are not yet known, with the successful contractor to be announced in 2017.

However, this shake-up in the youth detention space provides opportunities for the private sector to make a serious and meaningful contribution to delivering services that achieve better outcomes, including reduced recidivism.

The Queensland Government has announced that it will consider service offerings (even those which have been previously discontinued) if service providers can demonstrate that they will start achieving the aims of youth justice: reducing remand, reducing incarceration, and reducing recidivism.

Service offerings that include investment in innovation and preventative strategies may be key. A high profile example of this is the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) program, which has been tested in the juvenile detention system in the US, resulting in significant reductions in staff injuries, recidivism, more empty beds and the closing of a facility.1


Queensland is undergoing a multi-agency and multiple stakeholders process for the next 12 months to identify the best way of transitioning 17-year-olds out of adult correctional centres. In the process, it aims to improve the youth justice system for all children.

However, systemic changes are not limited to Queensland. The Northern Territory will no doubt deliver changes following the release of the Royal Commission report, having already alluded to building a new facility.

More broadly, the 2016 Children's Rights Reports contains some key recommendations for all jurisdictions to consider, including:

  • Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to 12 years (and putting in place better intervention programs for early year offenders);
  • Considering whether adult correctional centres are appropriate for those younger than 25 years old;
  • Ratifying the OPCAT, which prescribed detailed oversight mechanisms. If OPCAT was ratified, each State and Territory would be required to amend its legislative framework.

It is a pivotal point for youth justice in Australia. The system is ready for some new ideas. Over the coming months, Corrs will deliver a series of insights, gleaned from both domestic and international practices in the correctional services sector.


1 See Lives In The Balance presentation (2016) presented at symposium, Advances in conceptualisation and treatment of youth with oppositional defiant disorder: A comparison of two major therapeutic models, Eighth World Congress of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies, Melbourne, Australia. Available at

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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