Politicians often invoke ‘tough on crime policies’ to win votes, and mainstream media outlets frequently publish sensationalised and highly misleading crime reports to muster an audience.
The popularist rhetoric invoked by these power structures is often designed to create hysteria, demonise an ‘undesirable’ group and create an ‘us versus them’ mentality which demands decisive action – usually in the form of detection, prosecution and punishment.
‘Lock’em up and throw away the key’ is the popular catchcry when tabloid newspapers and radio ‘shock jocks’ selectively present specific elements of ‘newsworthy’ cases and demand ‘justice’ in the form of lengthy terms of incarceration.
The joint study by Edith Cowan University and Perth Children’s Court presented more than 500 Western Australian adults with a scenario whereby two youths assaulted and robbed a 20-year old man at a train station.
The initial responses tended to call for punitive measures such as detention, consistent with the public’s reaction to news reports.
But when socioeconomic factors such as poor education, low income, lack of housing and insufficient access to social services were factored in, the participants tended to favour rehabilitative measures such as community based orders.
According to lead researcher Dr Natalie Gately, the study suggests that the public is not generally inclined to place a socioeconomically disadvantaged young offender into detention when given all of the facts, even if the offence is a serious one like robbery in company.
“All we ever hear is that the public want us to go harder on crime,” Dr Gately observes. “What we’ve actually found is that isn’t true, if you ask them simple yes or no questions.”
“When you give them some (further) information, they make really smart choices. They actually mirror the principles of justice that the courts operate on.”
Gately, who previously worked in the media, believes politicians and media outlets need to be more responsible when reporting crime, instead of presenting incomplete and misleading information for their own purposes.
Perth Children’s Court president Dennis Reynolds, who participated in the study, has called for a rehabilitation-based approach to youth offending. Mr Reynolds points out that the “lock them up and treat them like adults approach” does not work.
“If reasonably minded people in the community are fully informed of all of the circumstances of a case … then they do understand that it is the rehabilitation and reintegration back into the community of young offenders which makes the community safer,” he explains.
A separate study by Dr Gately and James McCue of 87 children who passed through WA’s Children’s Court found more than one-third — 38 per cent — had a relative who was or had been in prison. More than three-quarters — 77 per cent — had a family member who had experienced an encounter with the law.
Of those surveyed, the most common age for a first burglary offence was 12 years. And while money was the most frequently stolen item, 20 per cent stole food and 8 per cent stole toys.
The researchers found that a large proportion of the children experienced “chaotic” lives signified by violence at home, self-medication through drugs and alcohol, and exposure to police.
Most of the children were disengaged from school — with just over half having been suspended or expelled — and lacked supervision or structure at home. Just 16 per cent lived at home with both parents and 10 per cent were in foster care or child protection.
The study makes it clear that socioeconomic disadvantage is a significant contributing factor to crime, leading the researchers to find that addressing the underlying causes of offending would lead to reduced youth crime rates.
It costs an average of $1400 a day to keep a young person in an Australian youth justice centre, and many feel a move towards a rehabilitative model would not only increase the likelihood of children becoming gainful members of society, but also save a lot of taxpayer money.