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LIV President's Blog 2012

LIV President's Blog 2013

Reynah Tang, LIV President 2013 on the latest issues and topics. Read and comment.

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Bailing out disadvantaged youth

Bailing out disadvantaged youth
It’s not every day that I volunteer to get locked up. Only something of vital importance would persuade me to have my mugshot taken, be stripped of my possessions, finger-printed and fed prison grub at the Old Melbourne Gaol.

But there is something that makes being confined to a small space, with only the Law Institute’s CEO Michael Brett Young for company, worthwhile. Michael and I are going to jail to highlight that it’s sometimes a place where the most disadvantaged children end up. And they shouldn’t.

We need to get to children before they get to crime. And the frustrating thing is so much preventive work can be done in this space. Instead, early intervention services for disadvantaged youth are over-stretched and under-funded. By the time a child or teenager receives attention, it turns into late intervention. By then, the child is so damaged that trying to help them takes more work – at greater social and economic cost.

Balancing tough on crime
For politicians, it’s fashionable to be seen to be “tough on crime”. But we need to strike a sensible balance.
The Sentencing Advisory Council has just released new figures showing Victoria now has a rate of imprisonment not seen since the late 19th century. In the case of children particularly, the onus must be on rehabilitation and diverting them away from prisons as much as possible, so that they can hope for something resembling a future. For many of these young people, having a normal job and normal relationships is unthinkable.

10 years old, and already in the system
A recent report by the Jesuit Social Services identified a group of 27 children remanded in custody for the first time at the unbelievably young age of 10 to 12.
My son is 10. It’s hard for me to imagine a 10-year-old child being so damaged, that they have already earned the attention of the justice system. But in this study, every single child had been involved in the child protection system. When abused and vulnerable children become offenders, the system has let them down. And so have we, as a community.  

The report argues that the age of criminal responsibility should be lifted from 10 to 12 – because primary school-aged children shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system. It says that the age of responsibility is 13 in New Zealand, between 12 and 14 in most European countries, and 14 in Japan and China.
While the State Government has indicated it has no plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility, at the very least we should be conducting more extensive research into the subject, and having a community debate about it.
Focus on prevention
What we do know is that we are better off putting in place preventive measures to keep children out of the system to begin with. The report found that the younger children were when they entered the criminal justice system, the more likely they were to re-offend. It’s a sad revolving door and locking them up serves no good, because there’s little evidence to suggest that jailing youth stops them from re-offending.
In addition to the social cost of children being traumatised and facing a bleak future, it is also very costly to keep someone incarcerated. A report by the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition found the average cost of holding a young person in custody in Australia is about $600 per person, per day. It cites an “overuse of imprisonment, especially in the case of young people, resulting in intolerable social and financial burdens”.
One of the most effective ways to pull a child out of a life of disadvantage is to keep them in school. It makes good economic sense to intervene early, rehabilitate a child and help them go on to make a contribution to society.
Melbourne Bail Out
Whitelion does great work to support young at-risk people. The Melbourne Bail Out, next Friday 31 May, is a cause worth supporting. We are getting close to the minimum $2000 needed to secure our bail, but we should not stop there.

At the end of the day, children need to be dealt with by protective and supportive welfare services, rather than the harshness of the justice system. We should all do our bit to help them.
Do you think the age of criminal responsibility should be raised?

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