Young people and crime in NSW 

Research shows us that while a significant proportion of young people will at some time commit some type of offence, it is only a small proportion that do so on an ongoing basis. Most young people who do offend will stop without any form of intervention and without ever coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

However, there is a small group of juvenile offenders who do not stop and this group has been found to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime. Research shows that young people who come into contact with the criminal justice system at a very young age are the most likely to continue offending for longer.

There are factors that have been identified that distinguish short-term and more persistent offenders. Where the short-term offenders act out of opportunity, persistent offenders are often from "disadvantaged backgrounds, characterised by poor education, disrupted families and engagement in regular risk taking behaviour" such as substance abuse and acts of aggression.These young people are likely to continue offending into adulthood unless they receive targeted intervention to address the underlying causes of their involvement in crime.

Demographic profile of young people at risk of offending

The most recent survey of young people in detention provides a snapshot of their social attributes and the problems they face. Specifically, they had experienced:

  • disengagement from education and poor educational achievement;
  • family dysfunction, such as having experienced abuse or trauma, and being placed in out-of-home care;
  • disability, including cognitive and mental health impairments;
  • poverty and low socio-economic status;
  • a family history of unemployment and welfare dependence;
  • alcohol and other drug misuse, and other risky behaviour;
  • having an offending parent and / or exposure to a criminal lifestyle or pro-criminal attitudes;
  • close friends who engage in risky behaviour and crime; and
  • lack of structured activities or employment.

When we look at the young people who have been sentenced to detention, their problems are stark. The overwhelming majority, 87%, have a psychological disorder. In fact 73% of them had at least two psychological disorders. Seventy per cent of them had some type of diagnosable behavioural disorder. However less than 10% had ever been admitted to a psychiatric unit prior to detention.

Most of these young people had left school by the age of 14 and 66% had been suspended three or more times by then. Seventy-seven per cent scored below average or worse in intellectual ability tests and almost half had one or both parents imprisoned at some time. Alarmingly, more than one in 10 of them had attempted suicide at least once in their lives.

Juvenile offending

Recorded crime statistics provide a picture of the types of offences that bring young people to the attention of the police. The 2010 NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) report on trends in juvenile crime showed that over the five year period to December 2010 the number of young people proceeded against had:

  • fallen by between 5% and 12.8% in four major categories (rob with a weapon not a firearm, break and enter dwelling, break and enter non-dwelling, and motor vehicle theft);
  • remained stable in nine categories (including sexual assault offences, non-domestic violence assault, steal from motor vehicle and malicious damage to property); and
  • risen in three categories by between 4.2% and 12.4% (domestic-violence assault, steal from store and steal from person).

How police dealt with juvenile offenders

In 2010, 4,619 juveniles were given warnings by police, 10,541 were given a caution and 1,566 participated in a Youth Justice Conference. A further 8,630 juveniles faced 24,599 charges in the Children's Court. These figures equate to a total of 25,356 formal criminal justice proceedings for that year.

In addition to these formal contacts, in 2010 more than 50,000 juveniles were issued with penalty notices (on the spot fines) by police and other law enforcement officers.

Court outcomes for juvenile offenders

The most common penalty for most juveniles in NSW is supervision in the form of a bond or probation. Around half of juveniles received one of these outcomes for the years 2006 to 2010.

Crime reduction intervention

Currently, interventions aimed at reducing re-offending behaviour are only provided following formal contact with the court system. That is, it is only after a young person has had multiple and increasingly serious contacts with the criminal justice system that they are likely to be provided with intervention that is aimed at reducing their criminal behaviour.

Intervention provided at this stage is potentially too late. For the greatest benefit, interventions aimed at reducing criminal activity need to be provided at the first indication that the juvenile is at risk of continued offending. There is a body of research that has identified the risk factors that are associated with chronic offending. Visit the Risk and Protective Factors section of this site for discussion of the risk factors that have been linked to offending and the protective factors that have been linked to turning offenders around. These factors are discussed in the context of developing an early intervention system that will enable interventions to be delivered at a far earlier stage than is currently possible.