Authors: Lucas Calais-Ferreira1,2,3, Jesse T Young, Kate Francis, Melissa Willoughby, Lindsay Pearce, Alan Clough, Matthew J Spittal, Alex Brown, Rohan Borschmann, Susan M Sawyer, George C Patton, Stuart A Kinner
1 Centre for Adolescent Health, Murdoch Children's Research Institute and Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
2 Centre for Mental Health, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
3 Justice Health Group, School of Population Health, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Young people with a history of involvement in the youth criminal justice system, such as by being charged with a criminal offence and sentenced to a community-based or youth detention order, typically have complex health needs due to their high risk of injury, self-harm, and suicide. Research led by Lucas Calais-Ferreira from the University of Melbourne and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and colleagues across these and several other institutions found that young people charged with a criminal offence in Australia have a four times higher death rate than their age and sex-matched peers in the general population, with 9 in 10 of deaths occurring while unsupervised in the community.
For the first time, this research also found that this cohort of justice-involved young people has a nearly 70% higher rate of deaths due to non-communicable diseases than the comparable young Australian population, with cardiovascular and digestive diseases representing the highest relative health burdens. This research builds on previous findings by the authors that among adults released from prison, young people (aged 18-24 years) have lower chances of having adequate quality and continuity of care compared to their older counterparts despite having a high prevalence of physical and mental comorbidities.
The implications of this body of work are manifold. First and foremost, reducing youth incarceration should be central to the much-needed youth justice reform in Australia. Achieving equity in tackling youth recidivism has been flagged by the National Agreement on Closing the Gap as a critical goal in tackling the intergenerational disadvantage and related overrepresentation of young Indigenous Australians in the youth justice system. Second, when young people are sentenced to go under youth justice supervision, it is essential to provide for these young people's right to access clinical, preventive, and restorative services. Finally, the findings of the much higher mortality burden among justice-involved young people compared to what would be expected at a young age highlight the importance of improved preventative strategies for justice-involved young people in both justice and community settings.
Australia’s criminal youth justice system is changing rapidly. State Governments in Queensland and Victoria have recently designed or implemented youth justice policy reforms. This is a complex but ongoing public policy and health issue, amplified by breaches and lack of accountability by Australia of its obligations as a signatory of the United Nations’s Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The findings from this study indicate that an evidence-based approach to youth justice policy reforms might ensure that the health inequities faced by justice-involved young people are reduced and not further entrenched due to ill-advised policy change.