Youth Justice: Challenges in Responding to Young People Convicted of Sexual Offences

Wendy O'Brien


The clinical and criminological literature on adolescents who have committed sexual offences indicates that the pathologisation of young people and a labelling or overly punitive response is likely to be more harmful than rehabilitative. Accordingly, therapeutic counselling and diversionary schemes are seen as preferable to custodial terms in most instances. For adolescents convicted of sex offences, clinicians identify the benefits of comprehensive therapeutic care which involves family and is sensitive to the young person’s context and culture. The benefits of this approach are documented and, although data are limited, indications are that recidivism is reduced where adolescents are provided with specialised counselling to encourage positive and non-abusive behaviours. In Australia, each state and territory has provisions for youth justice clients serving custodial or community orders for sexually abusive behaviours. Yet each jurisdiction experiences challenges in ensuring the delivery of equitable and comprehensive therapeutic services, particularly to regionally and remotely located youth. This paper draws on data from a national study of the therapeutic services to children and adolescents with sexualised or sexual offending behaviours. With attention to the difficulties in providing services to regionally and remotely located adolescents, this paper highlights challenges around lengthy remand terms, the provision of pre-offence diversionary programs, and the provision of specialised supervision for young people serving community orders. For example, jurisdictions with the largest geographic service areas face enormous difficulties in providing specialised supervision for community-based orders. At present, there are several jurisdictions where regionally and remotely located adolescents may serve the duration of a youth justice order without receiving specialised counselling to assist them in modifying their behaviours. The paper identifies the risks where specialised counselling cannot be provided, but also identifies specific initiatives designed to fill these gaps in service provision to youth justice clients.

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