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Lawyers fear youth crackdown

Lawyers fear youth crackdown

By Karin Derkley

Sentencing Young Persons 


Youth advocates are alarmed by new tough on crime measures that ignore longer term declines in youth offending in Victoria.

A year of violent youth crime, along with riots and breakouts from the state’s youth detention centres, has pushed Victoria’s state government into a hardline approach to young offenders, leading to fears that years of progress in the state’s youth justice system could be undone.

Until recently, Victoria has been considered a leader when it came to dealing with youth crime, with dramatic drops in the number of crimes by young offenders.

The positive story has been interrupted by a rash of violent home break-ins, car-jackings and robberies over the past year, ratcheting community anxiety up to fever pitch.

The question is why the downward trend in youth crime suddenly reversed over the past year.

Many point to cultural dislocation and intergenerational trauma of some recently arrived communities, as well as the role of the drug ice in driving violent behaviour.

Assistant police commissioner for the north west region Steven Leane, who is also the spokesperson for the Youth Portfolio, says there is a relatively small cohort of chronic young offenders that are part of a “locked-out” generation – kids caught between cultures, watching hard-working, well-qualified members of their community denied opportunities, all too aware of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. “They’re kids who don’t see a future for themselves, so they feel they’ve got nothing to lose.”

Some have also blamed the fallout from a 2014 Napthine government order that allowed school principals to suspend and expel problem students, effectively abandoning a generation of disengaged teenagers onto the streets.

The unfolding crisis in the state’s youth detention centres follows a flood of young people into remand, making up as much as 80 per cent of the detainees, straining already stretched resources in centres that have long been identified as unfit for purpose. Leaked reports have revealed a problematic management culture in recent years, with casualised staffing leading to an over-reliance of lock-downs and providing detainees with few opportunities for education or rehabilitation.

Some commentators, especially in the conservative media, blame youth justice advocates for the current crisis, insisting that a therapeutic and restorative approach to youth justice that includes diversion programs, group conferencing and mentoring, is contributing to the problem. An iron fist rather than a kid glove approach to youth justice is what’s needed, opined the Herald Sun recently.

It’s a point of view that dismays those in the youth justice sector, who point out that Victoria’s enlightened approach has been responsible for the decline in youth crime in Victoria and is the envy of the rest of the country. “We’ve had a pretty progressive system that’s been looked on keenly by other states,” says youth justice advocacy group Smart Justice for Young People convenor Tiffany Overall.

Long range statistics suggest the multi-faceted approach had been working. In the 10 years to mid-2016, youth offender rates in the 10-18 category dropped by nearly 25 per cent. In 2015, Victoria’s youth detention rates were half that of NSW, and at just 0.9 per 1000 people were equal lowest in Australia with Tasmania. Sentencing numbers in the Children’s Court dropped by two thirds to a 10 year low in the 2015-2016 financial year, falling from 10,000 a year in 2006, to around 3000 in 2016.

While conceding that there are flaws in the system, those working in the youth justice sector fear the state government’s increasingly tough on crime stance will imperil the important advances that have been made in the system in the past few decades.

Those fears were confirmed by the government’s decision in February to move the administration of youth justice from the Department of Health and Human Services to Corrections Victoria under the Department of Justice. It’s a move that has put chills through those working in the youth justice sector, with many describing it as a backward step that risks entrenching young people in the criminal system.

Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards has strongly criticised the move, saying the DHHS was the most appropriate department for working with young people to keep them out of the justice system. “A successful youth justice system is one that helps young people address the broader circumstances of disadvantage behind their offending, to prepare them to become productive members of society. This work is clearly best delivered within the framework of DHHS, and this announcement is counter-productive to these aims.”

Ms Overall says: “This move risks the system losing its focus on rehabilitation and age appropriate responses which critically makes it far less likely for young people to be repeat offenders. Restrictive and punitive approaches do not work.”

Youth Affairs Council Vic CEO Georgie Ferrari said the decision was very troubling. “We need a youth justice system which focuses on turning young people away from a life of crime – not acclimatising them to life as adult criminals,” she said.

Other tough on crime reforms include the fast-tracking of a “supermax” high security youth detention facility with 6-metre concrete walls in Werribee South, an increase in the maximum period of detention that can be imposed by the Children’s Court from three to four years, and a proposal to drop the dual track system that allowed some offenders aged 18 to 21 to be dealt with in the youth justice system.

What upsets many is that the criminal activity of a relatively small group of young offenders (less than 200 young people are responsible for much of the recent spate of crime) is putting in danger an approach to youth justice that has helped steer thousands of young people away from the criminal justice system over the past two decades.

“This is a containable group of young people, and we’re a sophisticated state and should be able to work out what is going on here without throwing out everything else that has been working,” Ms Overall says. “It’s been working really well for a whole heap of kids and we can’t lose sight of that.”

Criminal lawyer and LIV Criminal Law Section former chair James Dowsley says, “This has been a successful system for a very long time.”

“It’s going to have hiccups, but that doesn’t mean you throw out the baby with the bathwater. This is really a reversal of all the policy and frameworks that have been put in place for decades in relation to rehabilitation that have proven to be so successful.”

Victoria’s approach to youth justice has for the past couple of decades been guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recommends diversion from judicial proceedings where appropriate, an emphasis on rehabilitation and the use of detention as a last resort and for minimal time.

The basis for this approach is that, even while young people commit crime disproportionately, they are uniquely capable of being rehabilitated. Most grow out of offending behaviour and into law abiding citizens as they mature.

It is also driven by recognition that putting kids into prison or youth detention centres, is one of the surest ways to turn them into career criminals.

“There is a ton of evidence that shows that putting kids in jail makes them smarter, harder, faster criminals,” says Ipsita Wright, of YSAS, which offers early intervention programs for young people. “What we know is that young people reoffend soon after they leave prison because they’ve created a whole new range of networks while they’ve been in jail.” A study by the Sentencing Advisory Council found that once children are in the youth justice system, 40 per cent reoffend within two years and 61 per cent reoffend within six years.

“Pretty much all the policy prescriptions the media has on tough on crime we can show scientifically will actually make things worse,” says David Moore, an expert in conflict management who trains facilitators in youth justice group conferencing. “The way it’s being talked about is applying simple solutions to complex problems. All you’re doing when you put kids in youth detention centres is making sure they are hanging around with the wrong people.”

Jesuit Social Services youth justice programs manager Sarah Colville says that putting young people in custody doesn’t solve anything unless there is a strong rehabilitation program to back it up. “We know that the effects of isolation for instance are detrimental to a developing brain and that being isolated from their family and community does not have a good effect on a young person.”

“What worries us,” she says, “is that the tough on crime approach doesn’t seem to have been based on best practice around the world, where the countries that have a strong focus on skill-building and rehabilitation have very low recidivism rates.”

What the more recent challenges represented by youth crime require are new approaches that seek to build an understanding of the motivators of the crime, and find ways to address them, says Mr Dowsley. “We’ve got to acknowledge that there are currently problems, but they can be addressed by further resourcing and trust-building and engaging with the young offenders at an earlier stage.”

“You need to put in place intensive individual support – and do so as early as possible,” Ms Colville says. JSS is currently working with the Sudanese community to understand the issues driving the surge of criminal activity among some of its young people and look at ways of addressing them.

Assistant commissioner Steven Leane says that while it’s important to take a strong line on young people committing serious offences, the flipside of that is to find ways to prevent kids from committing crime in the future. “We get that it’s not just about arresting people – there’s more to it. If that’s all you do with a young person, then all you will do over time is grow another group of chronic offenders who will move into the adult justice system.”

Among the potentially promising programs are the new Youth Crime Prevention Grants to fund programs identified by communities as addressing specific issues. The grants will support evidence-based, community-led projects designed to make communities safer.

Youth justice lawyers are also cautiously optimistic about new bail and youth control orders that will incorporate intensive case management, supervision and support. LIV Criminal Law Section co-chair Melinda Walker says: “With appropriate resources and skilled people, this kind of support and strong boundaries is just what these kids and their families need to promote their children’s rehabilitation”.

It is also hoped that a new statewide court diversion program will help entrench a more proactive approach to giving young offenders options to divert from the youth justice system.

What no one wants is for achievements to date to be squandered. “So many kids have benefited from these programs,” Ms Overall says. “If we get a more punitive system we’re going to end up with a whole lot more kids in the tertiary end of the system and that’s going to be disastrous.”

The LIV participated in Victoria Police’s Youth Summit in July and it has made submissions on Ratifying OPCAT in the context of youth detention (2016) and Diversion for Young People in Victoria (2012). In March, the LIV will contribute to a submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry Into Youth Detention Centres.

Who are they?

  • Of those young people involved in the youth justice system in Victoria:
  • 63 per cent were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect
  • 62 per cent had been suspended or expelled from school
  • 30 per cent presented with mental health issues
  • 66 per cent had a history of alcohol and drug misuse
  • 45 per cent had been involved with child protection.

Source: Youth Parole Board Annual Report 2015

Timeline of a year in youth crime

March 2016

  • Around 200 young people descend onto the CBD on Moomba weekend in a mass brawl


  • Police announce 80 per cent increase in car-jackings


  • Victoria Police holds summit to address youth crime ABC’s Four Corners screens exposé of abuse of detainees at NT’s Don Dale youth detention centre


  • Government brings in tough new laws for carjacking and home invasions


  • Inmates and guards clash for three days at Parkville


  • Unrest at Malmsbury


  • Dramatic car chase of teen offenders ends on Westgate Bridge
  • Riots in Parkville render much of the detention centre uninhabitable
  • State government announces more than 100 new youth justice staff to work in youth detention
  • Government moves 40 offenders to a wing of adult maximum security jail Barwon Adult Prison renamed the Grevillea Wing
  • Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and the Human Rights Legal Centre sue the government on grounds that housing young offenders in Barwon Prison is contrary to the International Convention of the Child


  • State government announces “sweeping” youth crime reforms, including longer detention periods, new youth control orders and bail scheme, and new “Fagin’s law” for adults who lure young people to commit crimes

January 2017

  • Riots at Malmsbury detention centre lead to a breakout of 15 young detainees, triggering a 24 hour man-hunt
  • 40 Corrections Victoria staff authorised to use weapons deployed to run the Malmsbury and Parkville Youth Justice facilities
  • Leaked government report reveals dysfunctional management culture in youth detention centres, including endemic staffing problems leading to the overuse of lockdowns


  • State government transfers responsibility for youth justice from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Justice and Regulation, and fast-tracks $288 million high security youth justice centre in Werribee South
  • Dozens of youths attack a community festival in Melbourne’s west
  • Youths riot at Barwon Prison’s Grevillea Unit.Night court a ‘first step’

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