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Time to reinvest in justice

Time to reinvest in justice

By Tiffany Overall

Justice Young Persons 

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Youth justice reforms need to be tough on the causes of crime.

Since the notorious Moomba riots in 2016 there has been a negative media narrative on youth crime in Victoria. This has triggered a law and order bidding war. Not only does this approach fail to make the community safer, it demonises young people, ignores what is behind youth offending, can result in mistreatment – but it also distracts from the critical youth justice reform work that needs to be undertaken.

The backdrop to this narrative is that while youth crime is generally on a downward trend, there is a small cohort of young people who are offending more frequently and more seriously.1 There has been an escalation in burglaries, home invasions, and car-jackings. The data shows 180 young people are responsible for committing one quarter of all youth crime.2 Outside this small cohort we know that children in the criminal justice system generally represent the most disadvantaged in our community, many being current or former clients of the child protection system, with an overrepresentation of Indigenous children.

In this context a number of counter productive, quick fix , punitive responses to youth crime have been proposed. These include the Opposition’s call for a super-max high security prison for children and naming and shaming children who commit serious offences while on bail, and the government’s disappointing move to incarcerate children in an adult facility and announcement of a suite of youth justice some of which are highly restrictive and more punitive.

We need to focus on what the data and research tells us works, and on further investigating and tackling what is behind serious youth offending. The current government review of the youth support, youth diversion and youth justice services presents an opportunity to address many of the current challenges in youth justice.

We shouldn’t abandon aspects of the youth justice system that have served Victoria well in preventing offending and promoting rehabilitation. The overall reduction in youth crime shows that some programs are having an impact in diverting children from the system. Instead we need to maintain, strengthen, or where necessary introduce evidence-based, tailored responses that meet young people where they are positioned in the criminal justice system.

Young people at risk

The state government has committed to early intervention and crime prevention programs that aim to address the causes of and risk factors behind youth offending including disadvantage, family breakdown, child abuse and neglect, homelessness, low education and unemployment.

We need to expand on this work by developing a whole of government, whole of community, long-term youth crime prevention strategy that links up reform and investment in justice, family, health, education and community development.

A common-sense approach is justice reinvestment which involves investing in disadvantaged communities to identify, develop and implement local solutions addressing economic and social determinants and risk factors behind youth offending. This approach is being trialled in Bourke NSW and bringing police, government and community together to work up solutions that cut youth crime, save money and strengthen the community.

Victoria needs a range of diversion programs to support children to stay away from the system and programs that help young people on bail to stay in the community, connected to education, employment and family life. Currently there is an unacceptably high rate of children (about 80 per cent) being held on remand while they await their trial.

The Victorian government has committed to:

  • a legislated statewide pre-plea youth diversion program in the Children’s Court
  • amendments to the Bail Act introducing youth specific provisions, and removing the breach of bail offence for under 18s
  • a statewide Youth Justice Bail Supervision scheme and expansion of the Central After Hours Assessment and Bail Placement Service with supporting legislation will be introduced in early 2017.

However, a cautionary note: the proposed new Intensive Monitoring and Control Bail supervision will impose restrictive curfews and onerous reporting requirements that may not address underlying causes of offending, nor reduce crime.

For those young people who do end up in custody on sentence, therapeutic and trauma informed interventions should be used to make sure they do not return. While we understand intensive therapeutic care units are about to be piloted in youth justice facilities, they have not been tried in any concerted way. Now is the time.

Tiffany Overall is the advocacy and human rights officer at Youthlaw. She is also the convenor of Smart Justice for Young People.

1. Crime Statistics Agency, ‘In Fact’, Number 1, March 2016.

2. Julie Edwards, www.theage.com.au/comment/dealing-with-young-offenders-is-difficult-but-not-impossible-20161128-gszb9r.html

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by commentators are not necessarily endorsed by the Law Institute of Victoria Ltd (LIV). No responsibility is accepted by the LIV for the accuracy of information contained in the comments and the LIV expressly disclaims any liability for, with respect to or arising from any such views.

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