Boys behind Bars

By Dr Michael Gliksman *

Boys comprise 95 per cent of the 500 children currently in detention in NSW. If you think this simply reflects their greater rate of criminal behaviour or the severity of their crimes, think again.

One of the statistics most frequently quoted by criminologists to explain boys' higher rate of imprisonment is that boys are five times more likely than girls to engage in criminal activity. This figure is based on court conviction rates, but this alone can't explain why boys are 20 times more likely to be imprisoned.

Recent work carried out by a University of Queensland researcher, Emma Ogilvie, overturns some assumptions by showing that girls commit a number of crimes as frequently as boys. Only when it comes to the use of offensive weapons is the commonly quoted 5:1 ratio approached.

She found that while boys were twice as likely to be suspected of and charged with an offence by police, they were more than five times more likely to go to court, the source of the 5:1 court appearance and conviction ratio.

A possible explanation is that the Queensland study may not have compared apples with apples. The 5:1 ratio might simply reflect differences in the seriousness of the offences allegedly committed by boys and girls. If boys are suspected of more serious offences, they would be more likely to go to court than be dealt with by a caution or by other means. But analysis of data from the latest annual publication of Children's Court statistics in NSW suggests this is not the entire explanation: even after accounting for differences in the seriousness of the charge, boys were almost twice as likely to be refused bail by the police or the courts before the charge is finalised.

Another explanation lies in a difference in criminal histories between boys and girls appearing before the court. If boys had more prior convictions, this might explain their greater rate of imprisonment as the court runs out of options for them. However, there is a certain circularity to this argument. If boys are more likely to go to court once charged with a given offence, they are more likely to acquire a criminal history, whether or not they really have committed more crimes than girls.

It is unlikely that differences in criminal history could fully explain why boys seem to be so badly treated by the Children's Court. When the comparison is restricted to the most violent crimes short of homicide, crimes for which sentencing is less sensitive to past criminal history, boys are still imprisoned at twice the rate of girls convicted of the same crimes.

The only other reasonable explanation is that police and court attitudes selectively keep young women out of the judicial process. This is consistent with the feminist view of young female (but not male) offenders as victims of circumstance, for whom involvement in the judicial process would merely serve to criminalise their survival strategies.

Giving the lie to the belief that only female criminality represents survival strategies, is the fact that about eight times as many boys as girls are charged with vagrancy or trespass in NSW. Not one young woman in NSW during the past year was imprisoned for the survival crime of soliciting or prostitution.

Discrimination against boys extends from the granting of bail when charged through to the risk of being jailed if found guilty. Boys found guilty are four times more likely to be imprisoned than girls found guilty of the same offence. When combined with the 5:1 court appearance ratio, we now have the explanation for the 20:1 imprisonment ratio. It seems to have as much to do with gender-based discriminatory attitudes and practices by the police and Children's Court as with the criminal behaviour of children.

Once in detention the discrimination continues. Boys experience physical conditions and facilities which are grossly inferior to those provided for all girls.

I have watched children no more than 12 years old who have committed no crime of violence, playing with their transformer toys like boys anywhere, on the floor of their locked and barred, "suicide-proofed" concrete and steel dormitory cells. In Minda, a Dickensian detention centre for boys in Sydney, even some of the beds are made of concrete. Five kilometres down the road, all girls in custody, including 16 and 17-year-old convicted murderers, live in conditions and have access to rehabilitation and counselling resources that none of these young boys will experience during their imprisonment.

The Queensland study showed that boys in custody were as likely as their female counterparts to have been the victims of physical or sexual abuse. Yet the NSW Department of Juvenile Justice makes specialised abuse counselling routinely available only to girls.

The placement of a young person in detention is one of the strongest predictors of graduation to the adult correctional system. It also represents a major risk factor for suicidal behaviour. Locking up young people involves substantial risks to their emotional and physical well-being and fails to prevent repeated criminal behaviour. These principles are accepted by criminologists and Children's Court magistrates but are only put into practice by them when dealing with girls.

Custodial sentences for boys as well as girls should be reserved only for serious crimes involving violence or for recidivists.

What would the juvenile justice scene in NSW look like if boys accused or convicted of a crime were as likely to be provided with bail or non-custodial sentences as girls accused or convicted of the same crime? Approximately 75 to 150 rather than 400 boys aged between 10 and 17 years would be in custody at any one time in NSW. This would be a rate of incarceration similar to that for boys in Victoria. At least four detention centres in NSW, including the notorious Minda, could be closed. The resources this would liberate for crime prevention and non-custodial rehabilitation initiatives are considerable.

In both NSW and Queensland, the police and judicial system treat boys far more harshly than girls. This selectively victimises and denies help to boys and promotes a stereotypical, harmful view of maleness from an early age.

It is during the formative years that society is presented with its best opportunity to break the cycle of crime. We seize this opportunity for girls but not for boys, to our eventual cost. Government departments, the police and the Children's Court magistracy should be required to develop policies, procedures and targets to eliminate gender discrimination. The current approach to juvenile justice can only work against effective crime prevention and against progress to a fairer and less violent society.

Let's close Minda...

* Dr Michael Gliksman is a clinical psychologist and public health physician in practice in NSW. He is patron of the Foster Care Association of NSW and chairman of the Steering Committee of the Centre for Child Advocacy.

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