Rethinking Australia's youth justice system by embracing child rights

Jail Hallway

Author: Dr Rhiannon Parker, Research Fellow

Recently, Save the Children and 54 reasons released a report emphasising the urgent need to transform the foundations of the youth justice system to align with a child rights approach. Such an approach will ultimately lead to better outcomes for children and young people, as well as for the system as a whole.

The current state of the youth justice system in Australia is concerning , with punitive and incarceration-focused approaches being favoured despite efforts to support prevention, early intervention, and culturally safe practices. These approaches have had a history of failing to adhere to child rights and often undermine intended outcomes of reducing recidivism and improving community safety.

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately overrepresented within the justice system. On average:

  • 49% of children and young people aged 10–17 under supervision are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds
  • 39% are culturally and linguistically diverse
  • 40% are from remote areas
  • 36% are from low socioeconomic areas, and
  • 89% have at least one form of severe neurodevelopmental impairment
This report by Save the Children and 54 reasons presents a valuable opportunity to reconsider our approach and adopt a system that respects child rights while effectively achieving its goals

Applying a holistic, systems thinking approach to the youth justice system reveals the importance of considering child rights across all aspects of the system, from prevention to post-detention support. This includes addressing the underlying causes of youth offending, investing in early intervention programs, and promoting rehabilitative detention practices.

What key changes are required to improve the youth justice system?

The report outlines several key changes that are needed to align the youth justice system with a child rights approach. These include:

  1. Greater respect for children's right to be heard
  2. Addressing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,
  3. Implementing trauma-informed care
  4. Using detention as a last resort

Crucial steps in this process include increasing the minimum age of criminal responsibility and supporting children's transition back into the community.

From a systems thinking perspective, these changes must be implemented cohesively across jurisdictions and at a national level to create a paradigm shift in youth justice. The development of national youth justice standards and a national approach to the minimum age of criminal responsibility would serve to unite states and territories in their efforts to reform the system. Furthermore, improving oversight of youth detention facilities and legislating human rights protections would foster a culture of respect for human rights across all contexts.

Why is early intervention so important for minimising youth offending?

A significant aspect of the child rights approach is the emphasis on early intervention and prevention. Systems thinking highlights the importance of addressing root causes and understanding feedback loops to create lasting change. By investing in early intervention programs and diverting funds from prison budgets into community programs, we can tackle the underlying issues that contribute to youth offending and reduce the need for more costly and potentially harmful punitive measures later on.

This aligns with findings from the Centre for Social Impact and DCJ on the importance not only of early intervention for reducing recidivism, but also community-led interventions that can provide a more effective environment of support.

The report calls for addressing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the youth justice system. Despite only 5.8% of the Australian population aged 10-17 identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, this group makes up 49% of the population within the youth justice system.

The report recommends acknowledging the impact of institutional and systemic racism as a crucial step towards addressing this issue. A systems thinking approach requires interventions that examine the historical, social, and cultural factors that contribute to these disparities and to develop targeted strategies that address the unique needs and strengths of these communities.

What role does the community play in reducing crime rates?

Community-led initiatives play a critical role in this process and have already demonstrated their effectiveness in reducing crime rates among young people. Indigenous leaders, such as Palawa elder and Amnesty International Australia advisor Rodney Dillion, have shown strong support for reinvesting funds from corrections budgets into local community-led initiatives.

By focusing on community-led and, in many cases, Indigenous-led solutions, justice reinvestment acknowledges the importance of local knowledge and cultural context in addressing the unique needs and strengths of these communities. This aligns with the child rights principle of non-discrimination, ensuring that all children, including those from marginalised communities, receive the support they need.

To summarise, adopting a child rights approach to youth justice in Australia is not only essential for respecting the rights of children and young people but also for achieving the system's intended outcomes of reducing offending, improving community safety, and providing opportunities for rehabilitation.

The report "Putting children first: A rights respecting approach to youth justice in Australia" provides a valuable roadmap for this transformative system change. By adopting a child rights approach and considering the system as a whole, we can see the interconnectedness of various components within the youth justice system and work collaboratively to create a more effective, rights-respecting, and equitable system for all children and young people.


Dr Rhiannon Parker is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact UNSW. She is a qualitative researcher whose work focuses on the intersections of social justice, health, and education.