Young offenders and prison

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
March 7, 2023

The youth prison population has always been something that concerns me, especially for those who have committed minor offences. Young people are some of the most vulnerable in any society, they are still learning and developing as they grow into adulthood. The notion that securing them in various secured facilities rehabilitates them, is a bizarre one, especially when you consider the vulnerabilities of young people. Young people receiving the support they need to change their lives is very important, but so is doing it the right way.  With global consideration, youth prisoners are generally defined as those under the age of 18 but over the age of 10.

In Sweden, young offenders make up only 0.3% of their prison population, that’s around 23 people. Comparing this with the United States of America who have a significantly larger total prison population is interesting. Youth offenders make up only 0.2% of the prison population in the USA, yet this totals around 3200 prisoners. The percentages may appear to be low at first look, but with a bit of digging you can clearly see the significance they hold.  Australia are facing a significant issue with aboriginal young offenders and their youth detention system. Over half of all the young people in detention on an average night were aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. This is despite young indigenous people aged 10 – 17, only making up 6% of the total population of this age group in 2022.

Young offenders have many of the same challenges to face in prison as adult offenders do, perhaps even more. Being sent to an institution which is designed to house young people, does not make it any easier or any more effective at rehabilitating people. In many cases, incarceration actually causes harm to many aspects of young offenders’ lives, such as their education, mental health and social development. In England and Wales in 2020, the proven reoffending rate among youth’s released from custody was 64% within 12 months of their release. This is proof in itself that the youth justice system in England and Wales is simply not working as it is intended to, as is the case for many countries around the world. It is often easier to focus on individual failures like those in the education process in prisons or mental health services, than it is to focus on what is failing with the systems themselves. Although it is beneficial to focus on individual improvements to the system, rethinking the way that youth offenders are detained is imperative to all criminal justice systems around the world.

Something I found very interesting when I researched this topic was how the media and academic publications alike, seem to largely take a softer stance on detaining young people. We have all seen the articles calling for tougher prison sentences for adults and calling out systems for being too “soft” on offenders, however this is not the case for young offenders. The idea for rethinking and reworking the way criminal justice systems deal with young offenders has support from all avenues and is something that urgently needs to be acted on.

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