Jeffrey Butts, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Juvenile justice in Australia dates to 1895 when the country created a specialized court for youthful offenders. The early juvenile court began as a progressive reform effort, but without a clear mission backed by law, implementation of juvenile procedures and policies vacillated between punishment and rehabilitation. The struggle shaped the development of juvenile justice systems across the states and territories of Australia.

Police in Australia retain considerable discretion during encounters with juveniles suspected of law violations. They may choose to divert the juvenile from the legal system, to issue formal or informal cautions, or refer the case to the system of Youth Justice Courts. The youth justice system in Australia handles many cases—41,158 in 2006 and 2007. The youth incarceration rate, however, is relatively low— 31 compared with 295 per 100,000 youth in the U.S. (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010).

The incarceration rate varies across the country, from a low of 9 per 100,000 in Victoria to a high of 99 per 100,000 in the Northern Territory (Adler and Wundersitz 1994). In 2006 and 2007, there were 10,675 juveniles under formal supervision in Australia. Of these, 83 percent were under community-based supervision, 46 percent were under detention supervision, and the overlapping 29 percent experienced both forms of supervision during the year (Richards 2009). Community-based supervision includes probation, parole, youth supervision orders, and youth attendance orders, which are stricter than supervision orders.

click to enlarge

Most juveniles that reach court either plead guilty or are found guilty, and about 92 percent of adjudicated cases result in a non-custodial sentence. In the 1970s and 80s, policymakers changed juvenile justice procedures to remove as many youth as possible from the formal justice system and to reduce the use of incarceration for those handled formally (Adler and Wundersitz 1994). These reforms helped to reduce youth incarceration, but they may have also created net-widening (i.e., more juveniles were drawn into the system simply due to the presence of expanded alternatives).

Some policymakers have begun to advocate strategies to require further reductions in youth incarceration and to shift in resources to community programs (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010). Jurisdictions in the United States increasingly use similar methods to conserve financial resources and reduce youth incarceration (Butts and Evans 2011).

Juvenile justice in Australia differs across the states and territories because each government has its own set of laws and diversionary options. Victoria made considerable reforms to its juvenile justice system in 2000. The reforms called for the diversion of youth offenders, especially high-risk youths, into rehabilitation programs and established transitional support services for juveniles released from custody. Victoria started the Vulnerable Youth Framework (VYF) to identify at-risk juveniles through reports of truancy, substance use, and family conflict. The VYF is evidence-based and promotes rehabilitation through education and employment training (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010).

In South Australia, Families SA is tasked with carrying out orders from the Youth Court. The division utilizes program placements (mentoring, youth and family support, poverty intervention, victim-offender mediation) as alternatives to detention to reduce future offending and prevent at-risk youths from escalating to crime. Families SA manages two secure juvenile facilities for the highest-risk youths and assists with reintegration following their release (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010).

click to enlarge

South Australia passed the Young Offenders Act in 1993 to reform its juvenile justice system. The principal purpose of the Act was to require courts to provide juvenile offenders with care and guidance necessary to become responsible members of their community. The Act advocates keeping youths in their communities so they can remain with their families, hold a job, and go to school (Darby 1994). The Youth Court Act of 1993 established the South Australian Youth Court and specified procedural guidelines.

Western Australia juvenile justice is based on the Young Offenders (YO) Act of 1994. The YO Act calls for non-judicial measures for youths who come in contact with the law. Courts are only to use custody as a last resort. The goal is to rehabilitate youths and keep them out of custody, which costs over $190,000 annually per juvenile (Blagg 2009). Sentencing options in Western Australia include fines, community-based orders with the possibility of community service and participation in treatment programs, intensive supervision outside of detention, conditional release orders in which reoffending would lead to a custodial sentence, and custody followed by supervised release. The Intensive Supervision Program (ISP) is a recent innovation for juveniles who commit minor offenses. The ISP enables juveniles to participate in therapeutic and mediation programs under supervision. It has been effective at reducing recidivism and taxpayer costs for imprisonment (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010).

The Northern Territory (NT) has the highest juvenile incarceration rate in Australia. NT offers diversions such as written or verbal warnings and victim-offender conferences to keep youths out of secure custody. Corrective Services, which oversees juvenile justice in NT, is cracking down on repeat offenders and prohibiting them from diversions. The Family Responsibility Order holds parents accountable for the repeated criminal actions of their children. Under the Order, parents are required to ensure that their children meet certain conditions such as school attendance, curfews, and participation in treatment programs (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010). Corrective Services offers support to meet these objectives and punishes parents (fines, seizing non-essential household items) for a failure to do so.

The Department of Communities and the police collectively manage juvenile justice in Queensland. Youth Courts can send juvenile offenders to a detention center for up to one year, and at least 50 percent of the sentence must be served in a detention facility. Juveniles can serve the remainder on supervised release (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010). Queensland recently created a program to lessen the duration of detention and reduce the number of juveniles in custody. The Conditional Bail Program allows courts to suspend detention so that juveniles can participate in intensive community programming. If a juvenile breaches their release or reoffends, a judge can send him or her back to detention. The Department of Communities offers funding to community organizations that provide bail support. Bail support reduces the territory’s reliance on custody for youth offenders (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010). Queensland is the only Australian territory to incarcerate 17 year-old offenders in adult prison. In 2009, there were 32 juveniles in Queensland prisons (Koch 2009).

Queensland passed the Juvenile Justice Act in 1992 to promote the reintegration of youth offenders and discourage the use of custody. The Act promoted the diversion of youths unless their offense is severe or they have a lengthy criminal history. It holds juveniles accountable for their actions and encourages them to take responsibility for their offense. If secure custody is necessary, courts must use it as a last resort and it should last for the minimum amount of time (Australasian Legal Information Institute 2011). In 2010, amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act expanded police powers to arrest, gave courts the power to impose curfews, increased minimum sentences for murderers, and relaxed orders against the publishing of information identifying youth offenders (Queensland Government 2010).

The Children and Young People Act of 2008 provides the blueprint for juvenile justice in the Australian Capital Territory. The Act promotes the well-being of all juveniles and encourages parents, communities, and the government to take responsibility for juveniles. It requires the government to expand community sentence options. The legislation sought to reduce imprisonment by prohibiting life sentences for youths under age 18 and calling for Youth Courts to consider split sentences of imprisonment and community supervision rather than just custody. It also enabled courts to impose rehabilitative sentences that are individualized to the needs of each youth. Under the Act, police have discretion to issue warnings and diversions for minor offending youths depending on their criminal history, maturity, and input from their parents (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010).

In Tasmania, police make an initial determination whether to divert youths or to send them into the legal system. The Youth Justice Act of 1997 guides current juvenile justice practice. It seeks to divert youths from the legal system when appropriate, provide them with rehabilitation services, and connect them to internal and external agencies that offer further support services (Murphy, McGinness and McDermott 2010).


[1] In Australia, “juvenile” refers to youth age 10 to 17 (in Queensland, 10 to 16)


Adler, Christine and Joy Wundersitz (1994). New directions in juvenile justice reform in Australia. In Adler, Christine and Joy Wundersitz (Eds.), Family conferencing and juvenile justice: The way forward or misplaced optimism? Canberra, AU: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Australasian Legal Information Institute (2011). Juvenile Justice Act 1992: Schedule 1 charter of juvenile justice principles. Broadway, NSW: Author.

Blagg, Harry (2009). Youth justice in Western Australia. Western Australia: Commissioner for Children and Young People.

Butts, Jeffrey A. and Douglas N. Evans (2011). Resolution, reinvestment, and realignment: Three strategies for changing juvenile justice. New York, NY: Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Darby, Christopher (1994). The Young Offenders Act 1993 (SA) and the rights of the child. Adelaide Law Review, 16(2), 285-307.

Koch, Tony (2009). 17-year-olds ‘brutalised’ by exposure to adult prisons. The Australian (Sept. 28, 2009).

Murphy, Peter, Anthony McGinness, and Tom McDermott (2010). Review of effective practice in juvenile justice: Report for the minister of juvenile justice. Canberra, AU: Noetic Solutions Pty Limited.

Queensland Government (2010). Review of the Juvenile Justice Act 1992. Brisbane, Qld: Author.

Richards, Kelly (2009). Juveniles’ contact with the criminal justice system in Australia. Canberra, AU: Australian Institute of Criminology.