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What can we do about the increasing rates of Indigenous incarceration?

Professor Anthony Shakeshaft
image - Anthony Shakeshaft Square

It’s unquestionable that detention and jail are not good places for teenagers to find themselves, as is the oft-repeated cliché that prevention is better than cure. So why are we increasingly locking up kids instead of finding upstream programs to minimise the number of them who end up in detention? 

In part the answer is that we don’t have good evidence about what effective upstream programs might look like, which means governments have limited options. We’re confident about the accuracy of such a bold claim because we’ve had a careful look at the international literature: Alice Knight’s forthcoming systematic review (to be published in the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health) shows that evaluations of community-based programs for young people who are experiencing multiple risk factors (e.g. substance abuse, little education, violence, poor psychological health) represent a miserly 12 per cent of the published studies in that field, and half of those were of poor methodological quality, meaning it’s hard to have confidence in their results. Of course we are not saying that nobody is publishing work in this space, merely that only 12 per cent of it is evaluating the impact of programs, and no evaluation studies included an economic analysis.

The Australian ran a story suggesting one community-based program, BackTrack, is showing promise. NDARC at UNSW is one of a group of four universities (UNSW, UNE, HMRI and CQU) partnering with BackTrack to formally define and evaluate the program. Given the lack of published evaluations to date, we wanted to build a solid evidence base from the ground up, so we have focused on defining what the program is, how it works and how we might embed good evaluation into its routine processes. The reason we wanted to do that is so it could be replicated anywhere – we don’t need to build hundreds of new, identical programs around the country, we just have to align existing programs with a structure that has been shown to be both effective and a good economic investment.

The details of our current evaluation will soon be released in a series of papers (email Alice Knight at NDARC if you want us to email you the papers once they have been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication).

The clients of BackTrack certainly look familiar: almost all participants are males aged 15-18 years, and Aboriginal young men are way over-represented (they comprise 50 per cent of program participants despite a local Aboriginal population of 9 per cent).

The Australian focused on the (very) preliminary outcome data, which we are currently carefully scrutinising and preparing for the rigours of peer-review. Some outcomes look promising: substantial improvements in rates of severe psychological distress, suicide ideation, multiple suspensions from school, and weekly illicit drug use. Other outcomes may need more focused effort (which programs can be modified to deliver), including rates of smoking and risky drinking.

Beyond the impacts on program participants, it appears these program benefits extend to the whole community: our analysis of police incident data for all young people from the five communities who have had access to BackTrack has shown a consistent reduction in crime trends after the commencement of BackTrack, compared to a previous period of at least seven years. And this type of community-based program is wildly popular with the community. We asked almost 300 community members for their views about the costs and benefits of a program like BackTrack as a way of reducing youth crime, compared to an alternative of increasing police presence. Nearly three times as many people preferred BackTrack, even if it was shown to be more expensive to provide and even if it was less effective than greater police presence. We are working on our economic (cost-benefit) analysis.

The next step for us is to publish this data to provide reassurance that it is scientifically solid. Once we have formally established the impact of BackTrack, we’re keen to work with similar programs around the country – not to fundamentally change what they do, but to help them align with a program structure that has been shown to have a positive impact on program participants and their communities. Government investment for this adoption process would be highly defensible given our current cost-benefit analysis will show community-based programs like BackTrack are a good economic investment. They are certainly a better investment than incarcerating ever increasing numbers of predominantly Indigenous young men.

*Disclosures: the manager of the Backtrack program, Mr Bernie Shakeshaft, is my brother. This relationship is disclosed in all peer-reviewed publications.