Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Literacy, Numeracy and Non-Verbal Reasoning Skills of South Australian Young Offenders

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Literacy, Numeracy and Non-Verbal Reasoning Skills of South Australian Young Offenders

Article excerpt

This study attempts to quantify the basic literacy and numeracy skill levels of detained young offenders in Australia. Subjects were 561 youths in secure care in South Australia. Comparative data were available for 136 local high school students. Compared with student peers, the young offenders performed poorly on measures of reading, spelling, mental arithmetic, analogue time telling and non-verbal reasoning. Among the sub-groups, male Aboriginal offenders had the highest proportion of low achievers. This could be a factor in their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Their results suggest that environmental variables play a significant role in their underachievement. Reasons for the young offenders' poorer performance are explored and the possible protective role of basic skills against criminogenic risks is considered. It is concluded that the broad range of offender needs should be met by a broad variety of programs, including remedial education.

There is a general consensus in the research literature that delinquency is associated with poor educational achievement, particularly poor literacy (Sturge, 1982; Winters, 1997). The relationship has become so widely accepted that there is a perception in some quarters that literacy deficits are almost universal among offenders and that literacy problems are a major cause of crime. This is dramatically reflected in the State of Virginia's (USA) `No Read, No Release' parole policy for adult offenders introduced in 1986 (Williamson, 1997). There has recently, however, been some revision of this view. Black, Rouse, and Wickert (1990) found that adult Australian prisoners' literacy standards were not uniformly low. Literacy in their study included what was described as `quantitative literacy', that is, the ability to perform numerical operations on information provided in written form. In some areas, prisoner groups approached the levels of the general population or even exceeded them (most notably in relation to interpreting written dosage instructions for medicine--possibly resulting from a practice effect due to the presumably higher rates of drug use among the prisoners). Although the study by Black et al. showed that lowered literacy cannot be assumed in all or even in a majority of cases, comparisons nevertheless indicated that, as a group, prisoners are below the level of the general population. However, the fact that some prisoners have good literacy while many non-offenders have poor literacy makes the point that the relationship between literacy and offending is neither a simple nor a universal one. No comparable studies of young offenders in Australia have been undertaken to date. Although Cairney, Lowe, McKenzie, and Petrakis's (1993) investigation of youths in secure care centres in New South Wales provides many vignettes about individual youths and descriptions of the teaching practices in various institutions, no Australian studies that provide largescale quantitative data on the literacy and numeracy levels of young offenders have been located. The aim here is to begin to fill this gap in our knowledge.



A brief screening procedure known as the Secure Care Psychosocial Screening (SECAPS) (Putnins, 1997b) has been developed to assess youths placed in secure care. Some aspects of the SECAPS have been described elsewhere (see Putnins, 1995, 1997a). Various background, behavioural and psychological factors are briefly assessed in order to alert staff about possible needs or deficits that might impede the youth's ability to cope with various daily survival demands. Measures of literacy, numeracy and non-verbal intellectual functioning are included in the assessment, though none of these measures provides a definitive picture of any area of functioning. Of necessity they are brief and are intended to screen only basic abilities--mainly at the lower end of the performance range.

Numeracy is measured by two sets of items. …

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