Many young people in contact with the justice system come from backgrounds of extreme poverty, parental abuse or neglect, parental incarceration and disrupted education.

These complex traumas often manifest as addictions to drugs or alcohol, mental health challenges, poor physical health and wellbeing, and conduct disorders.

How we can effectively respond to offending by these vulnerable young people remains a contentious topic.

“Tough on youth crime” approaches are notoriously ineffective: 85% of young people in Australia reoffend within a year of release, and research from the United Kingdom suggests periods of detention increase the frequency and severity of offending.

Innovative solutions are urgently needed to reduce youth offending in ways that prioritise the best interests of the child.

Music can provide incarcerated youth with opportunities to redefine themselves from young offenders to young artists with creative potential.

Music as an arena for change

My analysis of international studies on music programs in youth detention centres found music can help young people to process trauma, build confidence, improve self-regulation, engage with learning, establish positive social relationships, and generate the hope needed to imagine new futures.

When we include music programs run for justice-engaged youth in community settings, researchers have identified more than 560 wellbeing benefits, including reductions in aggression and violence, a sense of cultural identity and belonging, and improvements in self confidence, trust and empathy.

The transformative potential of music is evident across musical styles and program approaches, from choirs to Javanese Gamelan groups to hip hop workshops.

However, my research suggests music programs need to be carefully designed and implemented to have lasting impact. Importantly, young people need to be given freedom to explore and express who they are and have opportunities to forge trusting relationships with peers and adults.

Music as a safe space

Music programs can alleviate the stressors of incarceration. The Australian Children’s Music Foundation runs music programs in five youth detention centres around Australia, often through guitar or songwriting workshops.

Musicians shared that these programs were not only an escape, but could “change the atmosphere” from a very intense environment in which youth are often wary and tense to one where they can dream and play.

One musician described:

[there is a big] difference in the kids’ reactions and their interactions between the guards who are responsible for saying ‘get in your cell now, we’re locking the doors’, and musicians.

Bringing together all of the senses to learn a complex skill, such as playing guitar, means kids are forgetting about everything that happened yesterday and not thinking about everything that might happen later. They’re thinking about what’s happening right now, so that already is a game changer.

Scott ‘Optamus’ Griffiths working with young people at Banksia Hill Detention Centre. Provided by Scott ‘Optamus’ Griffiths

Not a classroom

Musicians Scott “Optamus” Griffiths and Rush Wepiha of Banksia Beats emphasise, their program is not a classroom and they are not teachers.

Taking place at Banksia Hill Detention Centre in Western Australia, Griffiths describes Banksia Beats as “simulating how a healthy community should be”.

Youth can participate to whatever extent they feel comfortable. This might involve writing rhymes, laying down beats, rapping, adjusting the microphone, holding a notebook for someone, providing feedback or ideas for others, or simply listening.

In this way, young people can develop trusting relationships and learn from each other as much as they do their facilitators.

Music as creative guidance

Particularly when incarcerated young people have little control over their lives, having ownership over their own stories through music can be significant.

This is not always a comfortable process.

Australian Childrens’ Music Foundation founder Don Spencer noted:

it’s not ‘let’s all sing happy songs today’. Some of the songs that young people write are not happy songs, there’s no way you can make everything happy with what’s going on! But it’s the experience that we want to be positive.

The opportunity to experiment through music can be seen as a way to “try on” new identities and ways of interacting with others.

Musicians described music as a form of self care, with youths often requesting to learn songs they had “listened to with their mum and dad” – an important source of comfort and hope in an otherwise isolating environment.

No matter what happens, you’ve got to be there next time. It’s not like young people can do whatever they want to us, but if there’s a conflict we say ‘Okay, that’s not right, I’d like you to think about it. I’ll see you next time, and we’ll try again’.

Griffiths and Wepiha emphasised they “always validate” young peoples’ lyrics and rhymes, even if they initially seem problematic.

Rather than forbidding swearwords or certain topics, or having a more moralising response, Banksia Beats uses such instances as opportunities to talk through the issues important to the young people themselves.

Music offers a non-confrontational way for musicians to guide the youths to reflect critically on their past experiences and understandings, and make positive decisions for their own futures.

This work demands that musicians build rapport and a safe environment for youth to share who they are, process their experiences, and imagine where they might belong. This can be challenging with young people who have been repeatedly let down by adults and society in general.

Music as a right, not a reward

Musicians I have interviewed all agree that music programs should not be used to reward young people for good behaviour, only to be taken away if they don’t comply. Framing music as a reward – rather than a right – has the potential to mitigate the transformative potentials of music programs by subsuming them within broader carceral systems of discipline and control.

Music programs should be an alternative, safe, creative space where everyone belongs.

Rather than an intervention to “fix” young people while they also navigate the stressors of detention, music might also be an effective early intervention strategy. By reducing our overreliance on punitive responses to youth offending – which are “particularly unhelpful” at meeting the trauma-related and developmental needs of youth, we can imagine how such programs could change youth justice more broadly.

The question now is how we might make such programs available for the young people who need them the most. As one musician I interviewed asked, “how can music change the life of someone that isn’t given the opportunity?”

10: Reduced Inequalities
UN Sustainable Development Goals 10: Reduced Inequalities

3: Good Health and Well-being
UN Sustainable Development Goals 3: Good Health and Well-being