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Youth Justice

welfare and justice models, theories, principles, Australian statistics, social work roles, risk-focused, child first, youth on track, child rights, transition from detention, practice approach

Three sections follow:

1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

2. A suggested Practice Approach

3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Information

Historical Perspectives of Youth Justice

Youth justice has often been seen as alternating between models of ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’. Youth justice has never actually conformed to either model but changes in the system are often measured against the principles in these two models. While the two models are at the opposite end of the spectrum, the youth justice system represents aspects of both models (Cunneen & White, 2011).

The Welfare Model

The welfare model for young people arose around 1850 in response to young people being treated like adults by the criminal justice system. A positivist criminology approach gained traction suggesting young people were not necessarily responsible for their crimes; the person’s environment, e.g. living in poverty, lack of education, and poor parenting skills, played an important role. While the welfare model claimed to be operating in the best interests of the child, paternalism abounded (“we know what is best!”) and children had no rights (Cunneen & White, 2011).

The welfare model of youth justice has the following characteristics.

  • Behaviour is regarded as arising from a range of actors outside the control of the individual.

  • Rehabilitation is the primary goal in sentencing, not punishment.

  • The emphasis is on ‘needs’, over ‘deeds’; i.e., the offender is more important than the offence.

  • The needs of the young person must be treated through appropriate intervention.

  • Treatment can occur outside the formal justice process through diversion, but still involves professionals and experts.

This welfare model of youth justice predominated until the 1970s (Cunneen & White, 2011).

The model had its shortcomings. The young person did not necessarily have rights to a defence. Sentencing rested on the discretion of the magistrate, was indeterminate and often out of proportion to the offence. The environment in reform and industrial schools, established as part of the model, was more attuned to punishment than education and skill development; the qualifications of childcare experts advising courts was questioned; and social workers supervising juveniles were criticised for being too lenient (Cunneen & White, 2011).

The Justice Model

The justice model arose in the 1970s in response to critiques of the welfare model. Based on classical criminology theory it emphasises individual responsibility rather than societal blame, the protection of the community from offenders, and the imposition of consequences (punishment) for law breaking. The justice model deals with the offence, not the offender’s circumstances. The primary role of the court is holding children accountable for their actions, not rehabilitation (Cunneen & White, 2011).

The justice model of youth justice has the following characteristics.

  • Emphasis is on the offence rather than the offender.

  • The rules applicable to the adult courts concerning prosecution and criminal procedure are applied to young people.

  • Young people are seen as responsible for their actions, and offending is seen as the result of a choice.

  • The model focuses on the responsibility of the young person for the offence and punishment that ‘fits the crime’.

  • Rehabilitation is seen as a secondary goal in sentencing (Cunneen & White, 2011).

This model too had its failings when implemented in its extreme form. Societal factors do impact on behaviour and ignoring them completely appears unjust. Obtaining competent legal representation was problematic and young people rarely invoked their rights (if known) or necessarily understood what was happening in a court (Cunneen & White, 2011)

Theories of Youth Offending

Over time three focus theories of youth offending have emerged (Cunneen & White, 2011).

  1. A focus on individual factors. In this approach the focus is on the personal or individual characteristics of the offender or victim. Typical explanations for youth offending include:

    1. Young people choose to commit crime

    2. Biological reasons, such as lead poisoning, abnormal chromosomes

    3. Psychological reasons, such as aggression, lack of self-control

    4. Social-psychological reasons, such as abusive childhood, lack of love

    5. Pathological conditions, such as mental illness

  2. A focus on situational factors. The focus is on the immediate situation or circumstances within which criminal activity or deviant behaviour occurs. Typical explanations for youth offending include:

    1. Result of negative labelling, such as the stigma of being called a ‘delinquent’

    2. Poor school performance, including level of attainment, alienation

    3. Poor parenting, including lack of supervision and neglect

    4. Homelessness

    5. Peer group and youth-subculture influences including youth gangs, media image, violent video games

  3. A focus on social structural factors. The focus is on broader social relationships—and the major social institutions—of the society. Typical explanations for youth offending include:

    1. Inadequate socialisation, e.g. little education in what is right and wrong

    2. Colonialism and social disempowerment, e.g. denial of culture

    3. Racism and discrimination, e.g. negative biases in the system

    4. Poverty, inequality, and social marginalisation, e.g. no means to attain desired ends, social exclusion

    5. Unemployment, e.g. few opportunities for paid work.

These three theories have resulted in three ways of responding to young offenders (Cunneen & White, 2011):

  1. Punishment approaches. These approaches focus on what the offender has done wrong and emphasise one taking responsibility for his or her actions. Youth justice involves having something done to the person. The underlying concept is to get tough on the offender and punish the wrongdoing, e.g. tougher sentences, greater use of incarceration, boot camps, stricter regimes of discipline and parental fines.

  2. Welfare approaches. These approaches emphasise the offender and are structured around individualised treatment. Youth justice is something done for the person. The underlying concept is rehabilitation, e.g. therapeutic services, remedial education, wilderness camps, individualised treatment, resocialisation, and community-based programs.

  3. Restorative approaches. These approaches maintain respect for offender while making amends for harm caused. Youth justice is something that is done by the person. The approach promotes personal accountability, development of competencies, repair of damage done, e.g. family group conferences, direct work experience, victim-reparation schemes, youth development programs.

Youth Justice Statistics in Australia for the 2021-2022 year

Source: AIHW, 2023.

About 4,500 young people aged 10 and over were under supervision on an average day. 96% were aged 14 and over.

82% were supervised in the community with 1 in 5 (18%) in detention. The average daily number and rate of supervision has fallen over the 5 years to 2021–22.

Just over 3 in 4 (76%) young people who were in detention on an average day were unsentenced—that is, awaiting the outcome of their legal matter or sentencing.

Young people spent an average of 6 months under supervision. The rate of young people aged 10–17 under supervision on an average day ranged from 5.8 per 10,000 in Victoria to 46 per 10,000 in the Northern Territory.

2021-22 data shows 121 young Indigenous people per 10,000 were under supervision compared with 6.5 per 10,00 for non-Indigenous young people. The rates for community-based supervision and detention for Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people were:

  • community-based supervision – 94 and 5.4 per 10,000 respectively

  • detention – 28 and 1.2 per 10,000 respectively.

Indigenous Australians were younger when they entered supervision than their non-Indigenous counterparts. More than a third (36%, or 1,518) of Indigenous young people under supervision in 2021–22 were first supervised when aged 10–13 compared with about 1 in 7 (14%, or 634) non-Indigenous young people.

More than 1 in 3 young people (35%) under supervision on an average day in 2021–22 were from the lowest socioeconomic areas, compared with about 1 in 16 young people (6.1%) from the highest socioeconomic areas.

About 1 in 3 young people (34%) were new to supervision in 2021-22.

Social Work Roles Within the Youth Justice System

UNICEF (2013) suggests social work should be involved in youth justice from the time the youngsters are caught by the police, through the trial and during sanctions in four ways:

  1. Working alongside, but independently from, the youth justice system: Social workers help to identify proactively, and respond to, families where children are at risk, wherever possible by enabling those families to address the root causes of ‘presenting problems’ such as intrafamilial violence, neglect, and delinquency.

  2. Interfacing with the justice system: Social workers should be involved when the police question or arrest a child who is under the minimum age for prosecution or has not committed a criminal act but is clearly in danger (e.g., homeless, unaccompanied migrant). If a parent is arrested and detained, social workers should be able to check and ensure the well-being of their children.

  3. Working within the justice system: A wide range of tasks (listed below) may be allocated to the social work profession in the context of the justice system, from the moment of the child’s apprehension or arrest through to disposal and, where appropriate, follow-up.

  4. Assisting in policy, legislation, and programs: Social workers are well placed to contribute to developing relevant policy, legislation, and programmes, based on the needs and issues that they identify during their casework at all three of the above levels.

More specifically this involves:

  • assisting the child from the moment of arrest, e.g. during questioning, providing assistance and advice as required

  • preparing reports on the child’s circumstances and characteristics: family situation, health and education status, special problems, and strengths

  • organising diversion

  • supervising young offenders in the community

  • support during custodial sentences

  • preparing for release: working not only with the child and trying to ensure that his/her prospects on release are as positive as possible (continued education, vocational training, employment) but also with the family, so that the home setting is also as propitious as possible for the child’s return

  • post-release support: it is likely the child’s overall environment (family, friendships, community, material conditions, opportunities) will have changed little during his/her time in custody, and to the extent that these were causal factors in the original offending behaviour, the child may well need ad hoc or ongoing support to resist recidivism (UNICEF, 2013).

Chui (2014) suggests social workers are ideally placed to advocate for young offenders, both from a rights perspective and from a welfare perspective, and to offer support to offenders and their families so they are fully informed of their rights in court processes, the implications of pleading guilty, and alternative ways available to repair the ‘damage’. Social workers also are well placed to engage with families to address the underlying factors behind offending.

Current Thinking/Approaches in Youth Justice

The ‘Risk’ Agenda

Case (2021) suggest the concept of risk has been the driving factor in youth justice evidence production over the past two decades. This is because quantitative, descriptive knowledge has been prioritised as the key constituent of criminal justice evidence, rather than qualitative, explanatory understanding of offending. Prioritising the quantitative has happened in part as a response to policy demands for simple, clear research messages to apply in practice contexts. Quantitative evidence has been embraced as valid and comprehensive, when, in fact, it is incomplete because of the absence of qualitative evidence. Reducing risk has been the driving force in youth offending rather than considering more complex aspects of youth offending. This has been reflected in the training courses used in accrediting youth justice staff.

According to Case (2021) this failure of quantitative research to impact on youth offending in a consistent, effective manner has led to a push to develop new evidence-bases around anti-risk/positivist approaches such as those focused on constructive resettlement and coordinated, consistent, customised, and co-created responses to children who have offended. What has emerged from this approach is a relationship-based, engagement, trauma-informed approach; essentially the “Child First” strategic model of positive youth justice.

Child/ren First

Case and Haines (2021) and Case et al. (2015) explore what a Children First system would look like. First and foremost, a Children First system must provide a full range of services to children. This would include promotion of positive behaviours/outcomes, targeting these positive behaviours/outcomes, child-focused practice to diversion and individualised, targeted (not-risk-based) prevention. Within this approach, levels of child-focused support may vary, based on the offence. There is a cogent, growing evidence-base attesting to the impact and effectiveness of Children First-informed responses to offending by young people, all underpinned by Children First principles of promoting positive behaviours/outcomes, diversion, engagement, legitimacy, evidence-based partnership and educating adults to expect responsible behaviour from children.

Creaney and Burns (2023) also advocate for the Child First approach as opposed to a deficit-based adult-led system. If children are encouraged to enter collaborate partnerships with professionals who strive to connect with the child, positive outcomes are more likely. Child First provides the foundations for the development of participatory practices, where young people as ‘rights-holders’ are in positions of power and have influence over processes, are respected as ‘experts’ on their own lives, and perceived as capable of meaningfully contributing to discussions on policy and practice matters (UNCRC, Article 12). Participation is an integral component of Child First. This stands in contrast to the approach where young people are mandated to attend appointments, often questioned about their attitudes to offending, their problematic lifestyles, and ‘pro-criminal’ peer relationships. Participation means that, regardless of perceived risk, children are treated as co-producers and partners, awarding equal value to both children and professionals’ knowledge and experiences.

Youth on Track

Youth on Tract (YoT) operates as a case management and coordination model that focuses on criminogenic needs and responsivity factors in seven areas of New South Wales, Australia. This combined model requires YoT case managers to coordinate service delivery, facilitate access to supports, and deliver interventions to address the young person’s criminogenic needs and to increase pro-social behaviour. A case plan, building on the young person’s strengths, is developed with the young person and family. The whole process is designed to be participatory and allow the young person and family to identify issues and concerns and have these addressed. A trauma-informed approach is recommended with services to be delivered in a culturally respectful way, something especially relevant as a substantial proportion of YoT young people are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background (NSW Government, (2020, 2022).

The following types of interventions are available for young people unless deemed likely to fail or be unsuccessful.

  • Family intervention to increase protective factors and decrease risk factors for the family focusing on helping parents and children communicate more effectively and safely. Collaboratively solve problems, resolving conflict, improving parenting skills and promoting improved relationships are central.

  • Behaviour intervention to addressing antisocial and pro-criminal thinking and behaviour, e.g. use of cognitive behaviour therapy.

  • Access to and engagement with education should be a priority, achieved by addressing any identified behavioural, emotional, or cognitive issues which may impact upon the young person’s positive educational participation.

  • Other evidence-based interventions reflecting ‘what works’ to reduce offending can also be delivered, e.g.

o Drug and alcohol counselling

o Training and employment programs

o Centrelink and financial services

o Accommodation and accommodation support services

o Living skills development

o Social and personal development activities

o Recreation and leisure activities

o Cultural support programs

  • Providers can use brokerage to engage and retain a young person’s interest in the scheme. Brokerage can be used to assist family members, for example, by paying part of an overdue electricity bill when the power is turned off, and to facilitate a young person’s access to services that the scheme cannot provide (NSW Government, 2020).

Between August 2017 and June 2020, a randomised controlled trial (RCT) was implemented to evaluate the Youth on Track program (Klauzner et al., 2022). A brief intervention called Fast Track was created as the control arm of the study. Fast Track was a brief intervention of six weeks of case management. The RCT examined whether there were any differences in recidivism, education, employment, community activity, and housing outcomes between Youth on Track and Fast Track participants.

  • Reoffending: Young people in Youth on Track were 2.8 percentage points less likely to enter custody within 12 months and 3.5 percentage points less likely to enter custody within 24 months compared with young people in Fast Track. However, these differences were not statistically significant.

  • Education: No difference between Youth on Track or Fast Track participants.

  • Employment: Young people in Youth on Track were 6.2 percentage points more likely to participate in employment at the end of their programs and spent, on average, one more hour in employment each week.

  • Community activity: No difference between Youth on Track or Fast Tract participants.

  • Housing: Youth on Track participants were 1.5 percentage points less likely to be in out-of-home care at program exit compared with Fast Track participants.

The sample size for the RCT was small, and there were significant variations in both implementation and outcomes in the various sites hosting the program. The small differences in reoffending outcomes between the two groups may have occurred because the shorter, less intensive program may have been sufficient to meet the needs of some of the young people referred to the scheme. This is consistent with evidence from the broader substance abuse literature showing that brief interventions with young people can modify behaviour and achieve beneficial outcomes.

The Child Rights Approach

The Child First approach in England and the Youth on Track program in Australia are early examples of a child-rights approach to youth justice. Dandolopartners (2023) discuss this child rights approach, adopted because of the numerous inquiries both in Australia and internationally that detail the negative impacts that contact with the justice system can have for young people. Dandolopartners suggest youth justice systems in Australia persistently violate child rights. These systems are often not fit-for-purpose to support the needs of children and young people and divert them out of the justice system for good. As a result the current practices do not reduce recidivism (reoffending) and improve community safety.

There are several changes that should be made across the youth justice system to recast its foundations and move towards a child rights approach.

  • The voices and insights of young people should be heard and taken seriously in decisions that affect them.

  • The right support should be provided at the right time (e.g. early intervention) for young people to meet their needs and change trajectories, informed by accessible data, information, and evidence.

  • Instead of punitive responses, policies and programs and supports should be trauma-informed and address the unmet needs of young people and families to achieve cultural, social, and emotional wellbeing.

  • A skilled and adequately funded workforce should be developed, one that is equipped with skills, knowledge, and systems to provide care that supports the needs of children and young people.

  • Children and young people should be supported to transition back into the community with wrap-around support and planning.

  • There should be more effective and transparent oversight of youth justice to ensure the rights of young people are upheld.

  • Support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be culturally safe and community controlled and provided, in line with the right to self-determination.

  • Diversion for children and young people should occur at the earliest stage possible to help identify and respond to the causal factors of offending and reduce recidivism.

  • Detention of children and young people should only be used as a measure of true last resort, where efforts to divert a child has failed. Young people should never be detained in the same settings as adults.

  • The minimum age of criminal responsibility should be raised to at least 14 in all Australian jurisdictions with no exceptions.

  • Detention and community order practices are therapeutic, non-punitive and trauma-informed. Isolation is never used. Restraint and force are used only in strictly limited circumstances and not as a means of punishment.

Implementing a child rights approach is not necessarily easy as large parts of the youth justice workforce are not adequately trained to deliver this approach, media reporting often suggests youth offending is increasing in volume and severity, something not supported by evidence, and over-policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Transitioning From Detention

A 2013 study by Moore et al. highlighted the difficulty faced by young people transitioning from detention. Young people in this study recognised that they needed to create robust connections with family, peers, school, workplaces, and the broader community; develop skills to manage and resolve the negative effects of incarceration; and get support to manage the risk-filled environments to which they were returning. They believed that having positive relationships might best facilitate this. Thus, service providers need to assist young people to identify who they can draw on for support and to facilitate the development of other social ties to a wide range of formal and informal supports.

Principles of Positive Youth Justice

Byrne and Case (2016) suggest four principles for youth justice practitioners. They should:

  1. Prioritise children’s rights, strengths, capacities, and potentialities, making the facilitation and realisation of these the primary responsibility of the adults with whom they work.

    1. Children who offend should be given special status. They do not have the same access to resources, are significantly reliant on adults, and are traversing a range of physical, emotional, psychological, and neurological developmental stages which require a different response from those in authority, particularly those in the criminal justice system, to that of adults.

  2. Promote children’s strengths and capacities as a means of facilitating desistance, restoration, and inclusion.

    1. If intervention is required because of offending in childhood, then this should be the minimal necessary and it should come from non-stigmatising sources which do not encourage the development of an offender identity through prolonged systems contact. Early and preventative interventions should be universally accessible and should strengthen prosocial relationships and ties to institutions, particularly family, school, and work.

  3. Emphasise diversion and child-friendly systems management as vehicles to promote positive behaviours/outcomes for children and to avoid the potentially criminogenic consequences of system contact.

    1. Diversion has the effect of protecting against the stigmatising effect of formal criminal justice contact and the subsequent negative impact of acquiring an “offender” label. Diversion seeks to deal with the many unmet needs that children who offend have.

  4. Develop trusting, positive relationships between the child and practitioner, essential to fostering young people’s participation and engagement in change.

    1. It is known that change is most likely to be supported through establishing authentic relationships in which practitioners demonstrate genuine concern, commitment and understanding.

Practice Approach

There are several roles for social workers prior to, when and after young people are involved in the criminal justice system (CJS). Overall, social workers should strive to provide a full range of services to young people:invest time to develop a supporting, positive and collaborative (participatory) relationship with the young person (and family where possible), promote positive behaviour, and assess the factors needed to divert the young person from the CJS. Research indicates that youth justice workers who have good relationship skills and form a ‘therapeutic alliance’ with the young people with whom they work can have a positive effect on the recidivism rates of those children and young people. Essentially social workers should strive to engage young people as co-producers and partners in any process; ask young people what they think—their voices and insights should be heard and taken seriously on issues that affect them.This is a “child-rights” issue.In 80 to 90 per cent of cases a trauma-informed approach that addresses unmet needs will be necessary, with services delivered in a culturally respectful way.Trauma-informed care should underpin all aspects of services, grounded in an understanding of their circumstances, and needs (Dandolopartners, 2023).

Social work roles differ depending on where the young person is at in the CJS (categories are from UNICEF, 2013).

  • Before entering

    • be aware of the factors that could lead young people to engage with the CJS: adversity at home (abuse and parental estrangement), moving residence regularly, exclusion and/or victimisation at school, subject to sexual and/or drugs-related exploitation, exposure to family violence (Dandolopartners, 2023; Wigzell, 2020)

    • child aware practice with parents can be a resource at this stage (See Child Aware Practice, a separate post on this website)

  • At first police involvement prior to charging

    • strive to develop a trusting, positive, collaborative relationship with the young person—take their insights seriously

    • at questioning, provide assistance and advice to young people and parents

    • promote the young person’s strengths and capacities

    • organise diversion (address welfare issues and other factors: anti-social/pro-criminal behaviour, foster a positive education environment, deliver other interventions as necessary, e.g. drug and alcohol counselling, vocational training, accommodation support, social development, leisure activities, cultural support programs)

    • engage the family as supports for the young person

    • collaboratively (with the police, young person, and family) solve problems that led to the situation

    • consider a restorative conference (Restorative Practice is a post elsewhere on this website)

  • supporting young people who are in the CJS

    • strive to develop a trusting, positive, collaborative relationship with the young person: take their insights seriously

    • prepare reports on the child’s circumstances and characteristics: family situation, health and education status, special problems, and strengths

    • supervise young offenders in the community

    • support the young person during custodial sentences

    • conduct restorative conferences (Restorative Practice is a post elsewhere on this website)

  • preparing young people for release to the community

    • strive to develop a trusting, positive, collaborative relationship with the young person

    • ensure an individualised case management of young offenders

    • intensive case management may include education, vocational training, employment, housing, mental health, drug and alcohol, cultural support, and community involvement

    • work with family so home circumstances are favourable (Dandolopartners, 2023)

  • working with the young person post-release—ensure a positive collaborative relationship develops between social worker and young person

    • address any underlying factors behind original offending as changes in the young person’s environment (family, friendships, community, material conditions, opportunities) will probably be minor and, if these were causal factors, ongoing support will be necessary

    • engage in wrap-around support and planning

  • developing policy, legislation, and programs

Social workers may find several factors will impact on the supervisory relationship, and will need to be considered when providing support (Wigzell, 2020):

  • Adversity and turmoil at home, including neglect, arguments, and housing instability, can lead to non-attendance at appointments.

  • Adversity can impact on the child’s ability to engage meaningfully with services.

  • Children’s transient life circumstances can translate into fragmented relationships with services.

  • The threats posed by street life often prevent children attending appointments.

  • Children’s movement between areas can often result in disjointed supervision and difficulties accessing school, college, and wider educational provision.


AIHW: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2023). Youth justice in Australia 2021-22.

Byrne, B., & Case, S. (2016). Towards a positive youth justice. Safer Communities, 15(2), 96-81.

Chui, W. H. (2014). Social work and juvenile justice. In S. Rice & A. Day (Eds), Social work in the shadow of the law (pp. 232-251). Federation Press.

Case, S. (2021). Challenging the reductionism of “evidence-based” youth justice. Sustainability, 13, 1735-1753. su13041735

Case, S., & Haines, K. (2021). Abolishing youth justice systems: Children first, offenders nowhere. Youth Justice, 21(1), 3 – 17. doi: 10.1177/1473225419898754

Case, S., Creaney, S., Deakin, J., & Haines, K. (2015). Youth Justice Past Present and Future. British Journal of Community Justice, 13(2), 99-110. issue-2/

Creaney, S., & Burns, S. (2023). Freedom from symbolic Violence? Facilitators and barriers to participatory practices in youth justice. Youth Justice 0(0), 1-22.

Cunneen, C., & White, R. (2011). Juvenile Justice: Youth and Crime in Australia (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Dandolopartners. (2023). Putting children first: A rights respecting approach to youth justice in Australia. Save the Children, 54 Reasons.

Klauzner, I., Poynton, S., Weatherburn, D. & Thorburn, H. (2022). Evaluating Youth on Track: A randomised controlled trial of an early intervention program for young people who offend. (Crime and Justice Bulletin No. 249). Sydney: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

Moore, T., McArthur, M., & Saunders, V. (2013). Young People Talk about Transitioning from Youth Detention to the Community: Making Good. Australian Social Work, 66(3), 328-343.

NSW Government. (2020). Youth On Track service specification 2020.

NSW Government: Communities and Justice – Youth Justice. (2022). Youth on Track: Snapshot report.

UNICEF: United Nations Children’s Fund. (2013). The role of social work in juvenile justice.

UNCRC: Convention on the rights of the child. (1989). United Nations General Assembly. Retrieved from

Wigzell, A. (2020). Ethnographic perspectives on youth justice supervision and the supervisory relationship. University of Cambridge (PhD Thesis).


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