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Riots have hit youth detention centres in both Australia and the US. AAP

Australia could alleviate its youth justice crisis by importing the right ideas from the US

There continues to be a barrage of bad news coming out about juvenile justice systems in Australia and the US. But rather than temporary crackdowns or cosmetic fixes, officials in both countries should enact permanent solutions that replace large and ineffective youth prisons with a safer, more decent alternative.

In Australia, a royal commission to investigate conditions in the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention facilities continues. The inquiry was called after staff at the Don Dale centre were captured on film brutally abusing inmates.

In the US, Kalief Browder, incarcerated at age 16 in New York City’s Rikers Island jail, was filmed being beaten by guards and other inmates. He would spend two out of three years of his incarceration in solitary confinement without being brought to trial. After this, in 2015, he committed suicide, prompting US President Barack Obama to ban solitary confinement in federal juvenile facilities.

And riots by detained youth in Australia and in the US have caused officials to transfer them to adult prisons.

Washington DC’s once-broken system

Research I co-authored reported that atrocities in juvenile facilities are no anomaly. Between 1970 and 2015, we found evidence of systemic or recurring maltreatment in all but five American states’ youth prisons.

One out of eight youth in detention surveyed by the US Department of Justice in 2012 reported being sexually assaulted in lock-up in the previous year. And the Associated Press surveyed every agency detaining youth in the US in 2007, uncovering 13,000 allegations of abuse in facilities housing 46,000 juveniles.

When I took over Washington DC’s juvenile justice agency in 2005, it was a Dickensian nightmare.

Staff were routinely assaulting inmates. Kids were locked in their cells for so long without respite that they urinated or defecated in them. They complained of rats and cockroaches crawling on them at night. Sexual assaults and pressuring was evident between staff and inmates, and among staff.

A staff member was so regularly selling drugs to inmates that they tested positive for marijuana more often after they had been in the facility for a month than whent hey were taken in.

Every person committed to juvenile corrections in Washington over the five years I ran that system was from a minority background. Likewise, more than 95% of juveniles in detention in the NT are Aboriginal.

Change brings results

Rather than replace my ageing, 208-bed facility (whose population often exceeded 250) with a larger one, my department and Washington’s leaders went in a different direction. We created a range of community programs for those who did not belong in locked custody, which ended up being most of them.

For the handful who did need to be confined, we dramatically downsized our facility to 60 beds, and went from trying to extinguish youths’ weaknesses through a punitive approach to building on their strengths. We did this by providing a range of education, work, volunteer, arts and athletic opportunities.

Washington is not alone in taking this tack. From 2001 to 2013, there was a 53% decline in the number of young people locked up in the US. During this time, one-third of all US juvenile facilities – and two-thirds of all facilities with more than 200 beds – were closed.

Several jurisdictions – like New York City, Missouri and Auckland in New Zealand – have moved away from incarcerating juveniles in large, distant, prison-like facilities to smaller, more homelike facilities near their homes.

The downsizing of youth corrections in the US has been accomplished while still maintaining public safety.

After a horrific sex abuse scandal was uncovered in Texas, the state reduced youth incarceration by 38% in six years, closed eight facilities, and saved US$150 million. It shifted $50 million of those savings to community programming, and experienced a 49% decline in youth arrests.

Likewise, Ohio reduced youth incarceration by 47% between 1997 and 2013. It reallocated savings into community-based programs as alternatives to confinement. During this time, juvenile arrests dropped by 65%.

The state-by-state innovations we examined recognised that the most effective way to create safer communities is to ensure that young people are equipped with the skills they need to reintegrate back into the community – reserving detention as a last resort.

Australia has had its own successes in this regard. Victoria previously led the way with a humane and effective approach to youth justice, steering young people away from detention and towards rehabilitative and restorative solutions.

But now, Victoria’s officials are poised to build a massive, 224-bed youth prison in suburban Melbourne. The millions that will be poured into a failed institutional approach will likely produce negative public safety outcomes and sap funds that could be spent on more successful alternatives.

The combination of chronic institutional atrocities and widespread success reducing youth incarceration means large, prison-like facilities must be closed in favour of a range of in-home programs and support for youth, and small, home-like local facilities for the few who must be detained.

As Australian officials grapple with the challenges of their youth justice system, they must eschew youth imprisonment and build on their system’s many successes that have led to low re-offending and incarceration rates.

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