On the Justice Solutions international tour in search of better juvenile justice approaches

Delegates from Jesuit Social Services’ Executive team and Board recently have been on an international research trip to investigate justice policy, systems, facilities and advocacy in the UK, Germany, Norway, Spain and the United States.

In the post below, Jesuit Social Services reports on the findings of its Justice Solutions tour.

Jesuit Social Services recently embarked on an international research trip to explore innovative and sustainable solutions to adult and youth justice issues.

Our decision to investigate justice policy, systems, facilities and advocacy campaigns across the UK, Germany, Norway, Spain and the United States was largely as a result of the current youth justice climate in Victoria, though many jurisdictions around the country also face similar challenges.

It is important to note that, in Victoria in particular, public anxiety and the resulting pressure for changes to youth justice has been driven more by sensational tabloid coverage than crime stats – the later showing general decline over the past five years.

In response to media promoting stories of young ‘thugs’ and ‘gangs’ terrorising people on the streets and in their homes, the Victorian Government and Opposition have united in their reliance on a ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric as increasing punitive approaches towards youth justice are adopted.

Young offenders have been unlawfully detained within an adult prison with reports of assaults at the hands of prison guards, and new legislation to toughen sentencing and blur the line between child and adult is being pushed through parliament. Plans are afoot for a new 224-bed youth detention facility despite warnings that this will only lead to increased numbers of vulnerable young people in prison.

Elsewhere in Australia, the final findings of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (due to be handed down in September) will be a landmark moment for youth justice policy. The Royal Commission was established as a result of the Four Corners expose on abuse within Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.

More recently, claims of abuse in youth detention centres in both Queensland and the ACT have spawned allegations of isolation, using dogs to intimate young people, organised fights and supply of alcohol and drugs.

These troubling situations are symptomatic of a national youth justice environment shifting from rehabilitation towards punishment – from reasoned to reactionary.

Through 40 years of working with young people who have contact with the justice system, Jesuit Social Services knows that there are better ways forward.

We know that the overarching principles of an effective youth justice system remain the same anywhere in the world – a strong commitment to preventing and diverting young people away from the system; strong social infrastructure and alternatives to detention; detention facilities that are driven by supporting young people to gain practical skills to facilitate their re-integration and re-socialisation back into the community.

While each jurisdiction we visited on our #justicesolutions tour operates within its own local context, the same overarching principles were on display in each city we visited, underpinning our continual work striving towards just and humane youth justice systems here in Australia.


The ‘Missouri model’ of youth detention is hailed as a revolutionary approach to meaningful reform which Australian states can learn from. 

Missouri’s youth detention facilities are small, home-like and based in local communities. 

The approach is therapeutic and developmental rather than correctional – the strong emphasis on relationship is evident in everyone we met with.

It was interesting to note how staffing levels differ to Victoria, where our youth detention centres have been experiencing staff shortages and a lack of experienced staff. By contrast, in Missouri staff members are youth specialists (not corrections officers) and there are high ratios of staff to young people.

The success of Missouri’s approach is supported by an extremely low recidivism rate – three years after discharge, 70 per cent of young people have avoided further involvement with the justice system.

By contrast, in Australia 74 per cent of young people who leave detention have further involvement with the youth justice system within 12 months.

At the heart of Missouri’s approach is education. More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of young people in the system earn high school credits, compared to less than half (47 per cent) across the USA.

This aligns with Jesuit Social Services’ 40 years of working with vulnerable young people. Relationship is central to everything we do, and we believe that helping people on pathways to education, training and employment is the best way to help them reach their full potential. Missouri demonstrates what a humane, effective youth detention system can look like – one in which young people are held accountable but also supported to develop social skills and engage with education to benefit the entire community.


The general philosophy towards youth justice in Germany is to divert young offenders from the justice system wherever possible.

We got to see this in practice by visiting Neustrelitz Prison (approximately 90 minutes north of Berlin). This facility includes separate areas for 14-18 year olds and 19-25 year olds, and offers social therapy (including an on-site farm), workshops and vocational training, plus a unit for young mothers and their children.

In Australia the age of criminal responsibility is 10 however in Germany it is 14 and very few young people under 18 end up in custody. Prison is treated as a last resort with a range of alternative options present to prevent incarceration.

Crucially, when prison is necessary, young people are subjected to a four-week period of thorough assessment where an individual plan covering education and training, social needs and specific interventions (for example to manage violence) is devised for their time in custody.

In contrast to Australia, the use of physical restraint, lockdown and isolation is extremely rare, with the focus always on education, and treating any event as an opportunity to build understanding and skills for life.

Reintegration into the community is a huge emphasis, and this was evident in our visit to the Hameln Youth Justice Facility in which young people experience staged options for transition back into the community from short accompanied periods out of detention through to part-work or part-education in the community


Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards outside the Ullersmo Youth Unit in Norway

Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards outside the Ullersmo Youth Unit in Norway

Norway has an extremely low incarceration rate due in no small part to the fact that the country has a strong social infrastructure – including very good public health and education systems.

There is no stand-alone youth justice system in Norway. Young people 15 years and older are dealt with in the one justice system, but there are special facilities (a total of eight beds) for young people under 18 years who are imprisoned.

Other young people who commit offences are dealt with in the community. While many countries have the expression that ‘prison is only used as a last resort’, in Norway in relation to young people, it really is the case.

We visited one of two four-bed Youth Units in which there was a high ratio of staff to young people.

Half the staff are social workers, half prison officers – and the latter are well qualified with two years training in areas including ethics, human rights, multicultural competence, psychology, sociology, criminology, law, social work, moral philosophy and re-integration.


The Diagrama Foundation is a growing international non-Government organisation, including being the largest provider of Youth Educational Centres in Spain – akin to youth detention facilities in the Australian context.

Diagrama runs 38 separate centres across Spain, often with a gender mix and closed, semi-open and open sections all contained in the one facility.

These centres are prison-like in many respects with simple structures, safety and security integral to the model, with consistent internal design features and often built in rural surrounds.  The principle of being close to home is obvious, with family encouraged to visit at any time.

Children participate in five hours of school or vocational education each day, however Diagrama’s definition of education embraces skills for life, including developing respectful interacting with others, responsibility for own behaviour, resolving conflict as well as the practical skills of caring for their rooms, personal hygiene, house chores etc.

Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards and Executive Director of Programs Sally Parnell (right) with staff from Diagrama in Spain.

Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards and Executive Director of Programs Sally Parnell (right) with staff from Diagrama in Spain.


In addition to exploring these detention models, which shun the type of punitive approaches that have been evident across Australia in recent years, our #justicesolutions tour involved meetings with advocates and lobby groups in New York, Baltimore and Washington DC.

This provided an insight into the type of campaigning that has brought about positive reform, such as the recent introduction of legislation in New York to enable 16 and 17 year olds to be treated in the juvenile system.

The people and organisations we met with and learnt from urged us to consider that hasty and uninformed policy can derail a youth justice system, setting it off course for many years. We now have the opportunity to share our findings and insights with political leaders, service providers, community members and young people and their families – in search of a united vision for our youth justice system, its purpose and how we utilise evidence and international best practice to work towards the safer communities we all want.

For more detail on the Justice Solutions tour, see Jesuit Social Services' blog: https://jss.org.au/category/blog/

Power to Persuade