The neuroscience of incident reduction in secure environments

Ms Rebecca Cort1

1Australian Childhood Foundation, Adelaide, Australia

The 2017 Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory, and local responses to the findings, continue to pose challenges within youth justice detention environments. The Australian Childhood Foundation’s (ACF) work in the Northern Territory, post Royal Commission, has correlated with a significant reduction of incidents in both Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre, based on centre records and qualitative research.

ACF data suggests trauma responsive training reduces violence in secure environments. It helps to improve rehabilitation outcomes where historically, only criminogenic needs-based assessments informed practice. ACF’s work includes increasing the state-shifting capacity of young people to move from nervous system mobilisation in threat to social engagement in safety.  This facilitates a reduction in both aggression and use of force.

Historically, the tools used by justice systems did not account for the neurobiology of trauma, and corrective approaches further destabilised the neurophysiology of young people. For example, the criminogenic assessment tool YLS/CMI, determines how the justice sector supports the rehabilitation of young people. This is generally done through the lens of cognitive-behavioural theories, which are not informed by the neurobiology of trauma. Programs built upon the criminogenic needs identified in the YLS/CMI have low impact on recidivism levels. It will be argued this may in part be due to a failure to account for neurodevelopmental impairment and neurophysiological destabilisation.

Recent research suggests up to 89% of young people in detention have atypical neurobiological profiles which require developmentally informed and neuroscientific rehabilitative strategies. The use of evidence-based strategies can equip justice staff with mechanisms to build a neurobiological profile for each young person matched with informed responses to support the young person returning to a felt sense of safety.

The challenges of this work and suggested ways forward will be discussed.


Currently practicing as a senior advisor, Rebecca co-ordinates the youth justice portfolio for the Australian Childhood Foundation and has closely worked with the Northern Territory government post 2017 Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory. Using her early experience working in research partnerships between Griffith University and Mission Australia, Queensland University of Technology and Cherbourg Council, Australian Childhood Foundation and Wadeye Working Group, she consults with private and public sectors on the neuroscience of justice and trauma. Rebecca specifically focuses on the intersection between neuroscience, neurolaw, trauma and crime.


Aug 26 2021


8:00 am - 6:00 pm