Youth crime is on the rise in Queensland. Recent media stories demonstrate the high cost of youth crimes for victims – financially, through serious or permanent injury, or leaving loved ones to try and pick up the pieces after senseless and tragic deaths. Victims and the wider community are understandably outraged and demand the government hold offenders accountable and protect the community by making these behaviours less likely in the future. The government has acted largely through a police-led taskforce, increased police patrols, increased penalties for specific offences and encouraging use of supervision and stricter sentences by the judiciary for repeat offenders. These aim to increase contact, oversight and controls on behaviour and may operate through deterrence or reduced opportunity offend.

This seems like a sensible solution given some of what we known about youth offending. One-in-five boys and one-in-ten girls in the community are caught by police for offending. Most youth only have one or two offences and are effectively dealt with by police diversion (caution/conference), including for some serious offences. However, there is a small group of troublesome persistent offenders, who typically begin offending early in life and continue at high rates. This group is only about 5% of the population, but they account for 44% of offences. Evidence shows that this type of offender is of particular concern in Queensland, where this group appears to be growing. When the costs of offences are attached to persistent offenders as they age and commit more offences, each of these individuals costs over $250,000 by early adulthood.

Penalties unlikely to deter persistent offenders

There are four reasons why increased penalties may not deter youth persistent offenders.

First, youth are particularly bad at assessing the outcomes of behaviour (typically overestimating benefits and underestimating costs) and are susceptible to strong peer influence and biological disturbances, which can increase risk-taking behaviour. As a person ages, they have increasing control over their behaviour and therefore should be held increasingly accountable. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why we have a separate youth justice system.

Second, as youth engage more frequently with the system, the actors and processes become more familiar and normative and therefore their deterrence value may fade over time. This fading effect has been noted with forms of crime prevention.

Third, if youth do consider behaviour outcomes, they may assess the impacts of detention in both positive and negative ways. That is, for some youth, they may be drawn to rather than deterred from offending by the threat of detention as it is accompanied by improved living conditions.

Fourth, enhanced penalties and deterrence are unlikely to reduce youth offending if the risk factors or root causes have not been addressed. There are many risk factors related to youth offending, which are cumulative, occur in multiple domains and can interact with and exacerbate each other – things like poverty/low income, poor parenting practices, family violence and abuse, criminal attitudes and peers, lack of suitable or unstable housing, substance abuse, poor life skills, mental illness, school non-attendance/drop-out, unemployment, excess of unstructured time and boredom.

Persistent offenders are likely to have a higher incidence of risk factors which may be more acute. An important point to consider is what age we, as a society, think it is reasonable to expect a young person to be able to change these aspects of their lives, particularly if they directly feed into their persistent offender pathways.

Increasing surveillance and penalties are likely to cast the net wider and deeper – more youths in the population will be identified as offenders, and more offenders will be placed on community-based supervision and detention – and for longer periods of time. This can be done at considerable cost – it costs taxpayers $89,425 per youth on community-based supervision per annum and $761,390 per youth in detention per annum. After completing their orders, 57% return for more supervision within 12 months.

Therefore, this is an expensive option that does not appear to work particularly well at preventing or deterring behaviour. Importantly, this will likely mean more First Nations youth will be drawn into the system, with life-opportunities further reduced given its criminogenic nature.  The only positive for community safety is that youth are not able to offend in the community while they are detained. This is a very high price and alternatives are available.

“Increasing surveillance and penalties are likely to cast the net wider and deeper – more youths in the population will be identified as offenders, and more offenders will be placed on community-based supervision and detention – and for longer periods of time.”


An alternative approach focuses on collaborative partnerships

An alternative approach that is well-suited for holding offenders accountable for their behaviour and addressing its root causes is based on the Griffith Youth Forensic Service (GYFS) model. GYFS provides specialised treatment for adjudicated youth sexual offenders. This model can be applied quite well to treat serious violent youth offenders. It is informed by a wide theoretical and empirical base that integrates individual, ecological, and situational levels of explanation. The approach therefore promotes an understanding of each adolescent’s offending within the context of their development, natural ecosystem, and the immediate offence environment. The model is field-based so operates Queensland-wide including in remote communities, provides multisystemic assessment and treatment intervention to young people, and has a focus on collaborative partnerships including being well linked-in with community and government.  The cost of this service to taxpayers was $22,265 per youth receiving treatment per annum (2017-2018 cost), which compares favourably to alternatives.

For communities experiencing higher-rates of offending or particularly types of youth offending, a placed-based problem-solving approach can be used to add an additional layer of community safety. This involves experts, community and government working to break down the problem behaviour/s and examine the main domains or areas where it is occurring, such as in the school or family. We then focus on what can be done to reduce or eliminate the problem, given the specific contextual factors and al that we know about all the different ways of preventing crime. For example, we may use situational crime prevention to inform our altering of the physical environment to design-out crime or use random ‘pulse patrols’ to engage the community and increase the risks for youth offenders. It is vital that these projects are conducted in communities with high offence rates to improve community safety. They must be driven by the right leadership and overarching frameworks and have ongoing government funding and support.

Adopting these two frameworks – specialised field-based treatment services for adjudicated serious violent offenders and place-based problem-solving approaches to address problem community-level issues – may help to prevent the behaviours from occurring in the first place – and prevent victims from having to continually bear the significant costs of offending. Criminal justice system approaches – which are largely reactive – are unlikely to prevent offending from occurring.


Dr Troy Allard is a Senior LDr Troy Allardecturer in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University and has 20 years’ experience working in the field of youth justice. His research interests focus on improving understanding about the causes of serious and persistent offending and ‘what works’ to efficiently reduce this offending. He has considerable experience evaluating new approaches and using complex administrative data to promote effective and efficient policies and practices. Troy is currently co-lead of the Queensland Cross-sector Research Collaboration (QCRC) and member of the Research Consultative Forum for the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council. Previous roles include co-lead of Justice Modelling @ Griffith (2008-2010) and lead researcher on the Griffith Youth Forensic Service Neighbourhoods Project (2013-2015) that designed, implemented, and evaluated crime prevention activities in two communities to reduce youth sexual violence and abuse.

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