By Anthony McGinness

Key Points

  • I spent a night as an ‘inmate’ in a former youth justice centre as part of Whitelion’s Bail Out event
  • This helped to raise funds and awareness for effective approaches to youth justice

Whitelion is an organisation working in collaboration with young people, government, other service providers and business to solve issues facing Australian youth. They aim to ensure all youth have an equal opportunity to thrive. Whitelion’s Annual ‘Bail Out’ is a national fundraiser and awareness campaign, providing a unique insight into the lives of disadvantaged youth who have faced abuse and neglect, drug addiction, or poverty. Over one night and into the next day, ‘inmates’ were exposed to life inside a youth justice centre and experience simulated activities.

I have led Noetic’s advisory work with Commonwealth, state and territory governments, and the not-for-profit sector to inform and improve youth justice models across Australia. The opportunity to participate in the ‘Bail Out’ event was a chance to continue to advocate for evidence-based practice across Australia, and build public awareness about the challenges young people face when they come into contact with the youth justice system. It also enabled me to raise much-needed funds for Whitelion and the programs and services they offer.

Anthony McGinness and others at Whitelion Bail Out

We arrived at the Yasmar facility in the late afternoon and we were all quickly stripped of our possessions and filed into the youth justice facility to waiting guards.

Across Australia, on an average day, 914 children and young people are in detention. 

59% of the youth detention population identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, meaning they are over-represented in the detention population by a factor of 25.

As part of the admissions process we were searched, dressed in prison overalls, fingerprinted, photographed, categorised, dehumanised, and sent to a prison cell to await further instructions. Waiting in the cell, without yet knowing what the night would have in store was a lonely, uncertain and discomforting experience. While the Yasmar facility is no longer operational, graffiti and individual markings served as reminders of those who used to occupy these rooms.

In 2015-16, young offenders spent, on average, 171 days under community-based supervision and 69 days in detention.

We were released from the cells and marched into the open courtyard area for induction, and received instructions from the warden and the guards.

It was soon dinner time, where we were pretty well catered for. But it wasn’t long until some fellow inmates came to (fictional) blows and had to be separated by guards. Once the commotion had settled, we were split into groups to participate in a number of activities.

Staff shortages in centres have been linked to an increased use of force and restraints, including locking detainees in isolation. 

Youth justice systems are now seeking to increase the amount of training required of their staff, emphasising how developing strong relationships with children and young people can influence youth behaviour. New practices also recognise the need for staff to understand, and help treat, the trauma experienced by many young people in the youth justice system.

Legal Perspective: We initially met with a lawyer who has represented many children and young people involved in the youth justice system. It was a highly emotional and articulate perspective focused on the system that young people find themselves in (and are too often lost within), and the stories and circumstances of these young people. This served as an important reminder that we are talking about kids here – and their offending behaviour is often related to intergenerational disadvantage, trauma, and physical and mental health factors. All the evidence tells us that young people need to be diverted away from the youth justice system. The majority of offending will desist as a young person’s brain develops. The  best interventions are those delivered in partnership with their family and community, and which focus on the underlying causes of offending.

Since 2009, the number of children and young people committing offences has decreased by 25%. The number of children and young people in detention has not reduced at the same rate. In some jurisdictions, the rate of detention has actually increased.

 The Community’s Perspective: One of the speakers demonstrated tremendous courage and resilience as he shared his experience and story with us. He is on the path to overcoming significant family trauma, alcohol and drug abuse, and a history of offending, thanks to the outreach service provided by Whitelion – and of course his own hard work and determination. Now that he is on the right path, his challenges have become things we take for granted – meeting his basic needs such as finding accommodation and employment. Whitelion’s hope was that he might be able to meet a prospective employer at the event.

Successful youth justice systems focus on addressing the underlying causes of offending, which can typically include trauma from abuse or neglect, mental health issues, cognitive disabilities, drug or alcohol abuse, lack of education, and employment issues. Reaching at-risk young people, and helping them to stop re-offending directly reduces crime caused by young people, and reduces the cost of crime to taxpayers.

The Offender’s Perspective: We heard from someone who was taken from his family at a young age and effectively detained from 12 years of age. He spiralled into a life of drug abuse and violent crime. It took him nearly 30 years to break this cycle, and it was only thanks to his family and his own ‘white lion’ that he is now able to share his experience, and advocate for more appropriate justice responses.

A 2009 NSW Survey indicated 81% of females and 57% of males in youth detention experienced ill-treatment or abuse at home.

Two in every five children and young people in detention are also involved in the child protection system every year due to experiencing abuse or neglect. Young people in the child protection system are 14 times more likely than the general population to be in detention or under community supervision.

The Victim’s Perspective: The final activity involved a mock family violence trial and an incredibly moving reading from a woman who has experienced more trauma than most of us could even comprehend. This session was a powerful reminder about the needs of victims of crime, and crime prevention strategies.

Three out of every four children or young people released from detention in Australia will return to detention within 12 months.

My Perspective: Unlike many of my fellow inmates, I have had extensive experience working in the youth justice sector and visiting youth justice facilities, although I have never stayed overnight prior to my time at Yasmar. This meant that my night at Yasmar was about building a richer understanding of an inmate’s experience, being able to empathise with those involved in the sector on a daily basis, and trying to bring a more personal and visual perspective to my research and consulting knowledge. It also provided a great vehicle for me to build awareness across my networks about youth justice, and raise much needed funds for organisations like Whitelion who provide critically important services to children and young people.

The experience validated the complexity and inherent conflicts in the youth justice system. While we need to make sure that young people who have often committed violent and abhorrent crimes are held accountable for their actions, we need to remember that they are just kids. They are kids with a complex history, and their own story which all too often involves significant trauma, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental and physical health issues. We must listen and better understand these stories, and ensure that we are building a youth justice system that allows young offenders to address the underlying causes of their offending and ultimately reach their full potential back in the community.

We need to focus more effort and investment on addressing the underlying causes of offending (ie social disadvantage), and adopt a whole-of-community approach when young people do offend. Doing so may then present an opportunity to create more centres like Yasmar – that is, youth justice centres that are no longer operational because we have diverted funds away from custodial responses, and are instead focusing on prevention, early intervention and community-led responses.

Anthony McGinness is Noetic Group’s Head of Consulting. To find out more about Noetic’s youth justice experience, you can contact Anthony at

Research support provided by Matt Tuohy and Tegan Archer from the Noetic Group Sydney Office.

Photo credits: Whitelion