“In South Australia, more than half of the young people who go into juvenile detention reoffend – clearly something’s not working.”
Having worked for more than a decade in the youth work sector, Flinders University PhD candidate Ben Lohmeyer sees the flaws in the system first-hand.
As part of his new PhD in the School of Social and Policy Studies, Mr Lohmeyer will look at how Australia’s punishment-orientated justice system often perpetuates violence, and explore the factors that make restorative practice a better approach.
During the next three years he will interview young people on their experiences of power and violence in foster care, juvenile detention and in education broadly, to critique and refine restorative practices through a sociological, rather than psychological, lens.
“Young people are told to eat, sleep or do their schoolwork at certain times so often they’re quite powerless in these government institutions,” Mr Lohmeyer said.
“But with a restorative practice approach, a school teacher, for example, wouldn’t simply enforce rules and punishments. Instead they’d ask the entire class to collectively decide on shared values and beliefs, and frame expected behaviours accordingly,” he said.
“This is the notion of fair process, which comes under restorative practice, and is a way of sharing power so young people begin to trust in the system and therefore cooperate.
“If young people are involved in the decision-making process, they feel like they’re empowered and are less likely to use violence as a result.”
Mr Lohmeyer, who is being supervised by Flinders academics Dr Cassandra Star and Associate Professor Nik Taylor, said the high rates of reoffending in the juvenile justice system highlight the drawbacks of punitive approaches to violence.
“Currently in South Australia we have a juvenile reoffending rate of 60 per cent or higher.
“Often when a young person does something wrong we punish them, and that punishment is the deterrent.
“But restorative practice builds accountability so young people understand the impact of their actions on other people, and their relationships become the deterrent.”
He said the findings could ultimately be used to inform his own work and influence policy-makers.
“The Department of Correctional Services is worth roughly $200 million a year in SA and the foster care system is worth $500 million a year – that’s a lot of money for systems with a high failure rate, which is why we should look at doing some things differently.”
Mr Lohmeyer presented the scope of his research at Flinders’ annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) – a competition encouraging PhD candidates to explain their study in simple terms – and has now won a $2,000 cash prize and an all-expenses paid trip to represent the University at the Trans-Tasman final in Perth on November 3.
“The 3MT is absolutely nerve-racking but it’s also good fun, and it really does help you to narrow down your idea and refine your public speaking skills,” he said.
The 3MT is run by Flinders Univeristy’s Office of Graduate Research. Runners-up received $1,000 and $500 cash prizes.