Over the sandstone curtain: supporting rural Aboriginal young people in the youth justice system

Over the sandstone curtain: supporting rural Aboriginal young people in the youth justice system Thesis

  • Author(s): Butcher, Luke
  • Published: 2020
  • Publisher: James Cook University
  • Volume: PhD

Abstract: Despite substantial investment in policies, programs and services to address the over-representation of Aboriginal young people in the criminal justice system, little progress has been made over the last decade. Aboriginal young people still make up around half of the custodial population, despite the fact that only 5 per cent of the general population aged 10 to 17 years identify as Aboriginal. On any given day in New South Wales (NSW), Aboriginal youth are approximately 24 times more likely to be in custody and 14 times more likely to be under community supervision than their non-Aboriginal peers. When these statistics are considered alongside data showing that young people from regional, rural and remote areas are also more likely to be in contact with youth justice agencies than their urban peers, the need to understand the ecological and contextual factors that contribute to over-representation becomes apparent. The aim of this thesis is to understand how justice programs might be designed to more effectively respond to the ecological position and needs of Aboriginal young people from a rural community. The first study of the thesis reports the findings of a quantitative analysis of 6,750 archival records from NSW Youth Justice of young people who offended for the first time between 2013 and 2016. The study examines how the level of risk and need, as measured by a standardised risk and needs assessment, differs across rural and urban settings. Given substantial evidence of rural disadvantage in Australia, it was hypothesised that rural young people would have higher levels of risk and need than urban young people and that this would be further influenced by Aboriginality. The analysis revealed that more Aboriginal young people who were known to have offended lived in rural areas than urban areas. However, contrary to expectations, urban young people had significantly higher risk and need scores in seven of the eight domains assessed, and this was consistent for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal young people. It is suggested that these findings highlight the need to investigate those ecological factors that contribute to justice system involvement but which are not considered in the current assessment protocol. Based on a consultation with an Aboriginal community in a rural town in New South Wales, the second study aimed to understand how responsive programs might be designed in ways that would better meet the needs of young people who offend. Drawing on Indigenist research paradigms –particularly the notion of decolonising knowledge – the study explored: a) the types of knowledge and evidence that is important to community members when designing responsive programs; b) focus areas for programs that the community identify as important for Aboriginal young people who offend; and c) the natural resources and strengths that exist in the community to support program delivery. Eighteen Aboriginal adults participated in interviews over a six-month period, including two people with lived experience of offending as a young person. A qualitative content analysis of transcripts of the interviews identified a number of themes that reflected key community understandings of youth offending, including the need for contextually based, locally informed and community driven solutions. It is proposed that the main contribution of these two studies is the way in which it demonstrates how Western and Aboriginal community knowledge might be combined to re-define, re-create, and reframe some of the assumptions that are made about how to best meet the needs of Aboriginal young people in rural communities who have offended. The thesis highlights the importance of engaging with local knowledge in policy and program planning, and the need to carefully consider how historical, environmental, ecological, and cultural influences intersect to contribute to the significant over-representation of Aboriginal young people in the justice system. Methodologically, the thesis aims to develop a framework that can be used to guide non-Aboriginal researchers who seek to engage meaningfully and respectfully with Aboriginal communities and non-western research paradigms. It concludes with a discussion of how this approach can be used to support policy makers, program designers and practitioners in planning and providing services and programs for young people who offend in rural communities.

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Suggested Citation
Butcher, Luke, 2020, Over the sandstone curtain: supporting rural Aboriginal young people in the youth justice system, Volume:PhD, Thesis, viewed 04 July 2022, https://www.nintione.com.au/?p=24175.

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