Hard-core juvenile offenders cost at least $1 million over a lifetime in an "outrageously expensive" justice system, WA's top judge said yesterday.
Chief Justice Wayne Martin said there were "great potential dividends" in turning around dysfunctional families that produced young criminals.
Justice Martin weighed into the debate about neglectful parents, saying if Aboriginal children were removed they should be placed "in a culturally appropriate environment - ideally one controlled and operated by Aboriginal people themselves".
"We shouldn't allow children to be left in manifestly dysfunctional families that are producing offending behaviour," he said. "But we know from bitter experience that if you take Aboriginal kids and place them in a non-Aboriginal environment there are going to be problems."
He advocated for more family intervention programs run by Aboriginal agencies, which could save WA millions of dollars.
A young repeat offender could cost the system $400,000 between the ages of 10 and 17 and was likely to go on committing crimes as an adult.
"I think you could easily say that those kids could cost $1 million in the course of their criminal careers," he said.
"If you can change that behaviour and invest some money early, there are very big potential dividends and you'd have a much better community."
Justice Martin said some intervention programs were operating and the number of juveniles in detention, currently about 150, was "a little bit lower so we're making progress".
He said it was time to support Aboriginal leaders to take ownership of their people's problems. Indigenous children and young people make up about 5 per cent of WA's youth population and 75 to 80 per cent of the youth detention population.
"You would focus a lot of the effort into reducing the dysfunction in the family unit, very early in the kid's trajectory," he said.
"You would start with housing because if a family doesn't have housing, nothing good's going to happen.
"Then look at school participation, substance abuse within the family which is a health issue, getting mum or dad back into the workforce so there's money coming into the house, then look at nutrition and kids eating properly."
He said metropolitan programs would probably be different from those run in remote communities.
"Most Aboriginal communities have some really strong leaders, it's just a matter of empowering them and giving them the resources they need," he said.
"You do due diligence and you have auditing and monitoring processes, like any other program of government."