Irish Penal Reform Trust

Youth (in)justice and the COVID-19 pandemic: rethinking incarceration through a public health lens

18th January 2021

This paper, published by Taylor & Francis Online, focuses on findings from a larger study involving interviews with policy-makers, practitioners and researchers working in youth justice, focusing on Victoria as a case study. Victoria is the worst-effected state by COVID-19 and has one of the highest levels of young people incarcerated in Australia.

This paper proposes the decarceration of young people and children, with alternatives built around principles of a public health model.

A public health approach is based on: understanding the nature of the problem, implementing what works, focusing on young people’s experiences and input, and learning from experiences to improve policy based on evaluations. It prioritises the needs of children and young people.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 has stated detention should only be used as a ‘last resort’ and for the least possible time in the case of children/young people. The UN CRC has called for children’s urgent release from prison during COVID-19 pandemic, given serious concerns for their wellbeing.
 

Key findings:

Focus on ‘risk management’ of young offenders should be met with focus on their vulnerability and any stigma which is attached to young people who come into contact with the justice system. More focus should be placed on the fact that young people who are incarcerated may be ‘at risk’ in a physical/well-being sense; which should be differentiated from ‘risk management’ in the context of offending. Psychological and physical ill-health amongst those vulnerable to incarceration must be addressed from a public health context.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and discrimination or systemic disadvantages should be acknowledged when dealing with children who are incarcerated. In addressing and preventing violent behaviour, later in life criminalisation or incarceration, the identification of childhood trauma is imperative (this is endorsed in a public health approach).

In youth justice and detention centres, it is often reported that children and young people are typically held near others which can facilitate the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Workers and young people who are incarcerated in Victoria expressed concerns for themselves and their loved ones when interviewed regarding COVID-19.

In Victoria, COVID-19 screening, quarantining, remote personal visits, suspending temporary leave and virtual learning resources have been implemented to tackle these concerns. However, this paper suggests that the government has failed to address the potential harm which isolation, lack of visits etc. will have on young people’s physical, psychological and mental health wellbeing.

Young people who are incarcerated are some of the most marginalised people in society and have been unable to provide any input to COVID-19 policy or practice. Disruption to visits and education have destabilised their support systems and though children in the outer community have also experienced disruption they still have social media, telehealth and other digital technologies which those in detention do not.

In Victoria, a reliance on detention has been seen to trump welfare and rights-based responses towards young people and children experiencing incarceration.
 

Conclusion:

Community-based orders, trauma-informed approaches and diversionary practices should be used in a multidisciplinary public health response to provide alternatives to formal criminalisation of children and young people.

A public health model would encourage community-based advocacy and universal support programs over formal detention. Violence and adverse childhood experiences should be reframed as a matter of public health concern and knowledge/understanding of such matters must be increased to address the needs of individuals affected in a therapeutic way.

ACEs and childhood trauma can be aggravated by incarceration, which can see trauma further complexified by the pandemic, severely affecting the educational, emotional, social and physical development of affected young people.
 

Read Youth (in)justice and the COVID-19 pandemic: rethinking incarceration through a public health lens by Faith Gordon, Hannah Klose and Michelle Lyttle Storrod on Taylor & Francis Online here.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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