Young Offenders

There is a view that for economic and humanitarian reasons, treatment resources should be directed to young offenders, and early in their offending, to help them avoid further involvement with the criminal justice system. For the Department of Corrections, it is not that simple.

  1. Young offenders, base rates and reconvictions

    Definitions of offending vary in the literature on offending by young people, sometimes covering offences ranging from minor delinquencies to serious assault. Measures of prevalence also vary, from self-reports to court convictions, with rates as high as 70 percent for self-report and including minor delinquencies (Le Blanc & Frechette 1989, Le Blanc et al 1993, Moffitt & Silva 1988, Farrington 1995). Even under the more stringent tests of court appearance and conviction, a quarter to a third of all young males offend (Farrington 1995, Lovell & Norris 1990, Wikstrom 1987).

    This high rate is the major reason for believing psychological services should be provided sooner rather than later. Closer examination of these rates shows, however, that most young offenders, if they appear in court at all, do so only once or twice (Farrington 1995, Lovell & Norris, 1990). It is inefficient to direct psychological treatment to them. Only a small proportion of young offenders offend repetitively and seriously — probably fewer than 10 percent. This small group accounts for the larger proportion of young offenders' crime, and some studies show fewer than 10 percent of young offenders accounting for around half reported youth crime (Farrington 1995, US Justice Department Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention 1984a,b, Lovell & Norris 1990, Wikstrom 1987, Le Blanc & Frechette 1989).

    It is principally this group of young offenders who come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections, and they have very high reconviction rates (Bakker & Riley 1997, Zampese 1998). They are already immersed in a life of crime and have not responded to previous attempts to prevent further involvement with the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, once under the department’s jurisdiction, about a fifth of them are not reconvicted and it would be inefficient to target them for psychological treatment. Age must, therefore, be a secondary consideration to probability of reconviction. The Psychological Service Prediction Rating Scale is as accurate with young offenders as with older.

  2. Young offenders and treatment effectiveness

    In their 1990/1 reconviction study, Bakker and Riley (1994) found young offenders (aged 24 or less) did not respond as well to psychological treatment as older offenders. Nevertheless, there was a significant reduction in reconvictions. Overseas studies show that programmes based on cognitive-behavioural principles with high levels of integrity can reduce reconvictions in young offenders by up to 50 percent, compared with control subjects (Ross et al 1988, Raynor & Vanstone 1996, Goldstein & Glick 1996, Leeman et al 1993, Henggeler et al 1992, Borduin et al 1995).

    Importantly, follow-up studies of young offenders show the most effective treatments involve people significant to the young offender — family, educational institutions, employers, peers and all the offender’s social networks. Institutional programmes here must try to involve such people, and be extended into the community on release (Raynor & Vanstone 1996, Guerra & Slaby 1990, Goldstein 1986, Goldstein & Glick 1996, Leeman et al 1993, Henggeler et al 1992).

    The psychological treatment the Psychological Service provides to young offenders is, as discussed above, less effective than with older offenders. One reason for this may be that the service has not developed or implemented specific psychological treatment programmes for the young. Nor has it routinely included ‘significant others.’ The Young Offenders Project is an opportunity for the service to assess  how it delivers services to this high-risk group.