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Young offenders need experienced advocates: judge

Young offenders need experienced advocates: judge

By Karin Derkley

Young Persons 


Sending junior lawyers to deal with youth offenders on the assumption they are better at relating to people their own age can be a “harsh entry to advocacy” and overlooks the complexity of youth offending, a conference on youth justice heard last week.

"Given very few young lawyers I have met come from backgrounds that have involved abuse, neglect or drug and alcohol abuse by themselves or by their parents, or had to live in squalor or experienced homelessness, I have considerable doubt about the understanding or strength of any relationship between them," Northern Territory Local Court Acting Judge Sue Oliver told the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA) conference on youth justice.

She herself had been one of those young lawyers, she said. "I came from a working-class background and had a half-brother much older than I was who had done time for warehouse break-ins. Yet my life experiences were still far removed from those of my clients.

"So, what chance . . . [has] a privately schooled young lawyer from a privileged background to relate to the young clients, perhaps even to imagine what was behind the lives that they are living and guide the court to an understanding of their clients’ circumstances and propose interventions necessary to address these issues?"

Sending a young defence lawyer or prosecutor to the youth court was often justified on the assumption it is not a difficult jurisdiction "because the sentencing outcomes are generally not as serious as in the adult jurisdiction. So [the thinking goes] what harm can be done?" But the consequences could be serious, she pointed out.

These included “the passage of a young person's life into waste, ongoing harm to the community, and the potential to destroy the career of a promising young lawyer who finds him or herself unable to deal with the stress that arises out of the representation of very difficult young clients".

Judicial officers rely on skillful advocacy to be able to understand the complexity of the matters that may influence a young person’s behaviour, including the effect that abuse and trauma, physical and emotional neglect has upon the development of a child’s brain in order to be able to craft a sentence that addresses those factors and needs, she said.

"If the court is unsuccessful in crafting the appropriate determination the likelihood is that the young person will continue down the path that leads to adult offending and the community will suffer further ongoing harm."

Children's Court president Judge Amanda Chambers said in her keynote presentation on Innovations in Children's Justice that the rehabilitation of young offenders "is not only in their interests – but self-evidently – in the interests of the entire community".

Targeting early intervention with at-risk families, multi-agency interventions and addressing peer influences was the best way of tackling violent youth offending, to turn young lives around and in doing so, protect the community, she said.

She drew attention to innovations within the court that included the Education Justice Initiative that was first established in the Children’s Court in 2014 and has been expanded across the state, including in the Children's Koori Courts, and which last year provided educational support to 829 young people.

Other Children’s Court initiatives include the specialist Mental Health Advice and Response Service delivered by Orygen Youth Health to youth attending the court, the Jesuit Social Services RESTORE program process in which young people accept responsibility for their violent behaviour, while putting practical strategies in place to keep family members safe, and a statewide youth diversion program for young first-time offenders.

Judge Chambers said only time will tell if recent reforms, where young people aged 16 or older are tried in adult courts if they are involved in certain serious offences such as aggravated home invasion and aggravated carjacking, will be effective in addressing patterns of violent offending.

Also speaking at the two-day conference was the Minister for Youth Justice Ben Carroll who acknowledged the state had fallen far from its previous reputation as a leader in youth justice, but said the government was putting in a "record investment of over $1 billion in youth justice system – and we're also making some real game-changing reforms".

"We need to do things differently – we can't just keep building prisons and beds if you are to change the trajectory – we have to think outside of the box," he said. Reading the Penny Armytage and James Ogloff Youth Justice Review on a regular basis has provided him with a blueprint going forward, he said, and was a constant reminder that it is about “seeing the child first and the offender second”.

Mr Carroll said he was proud to have reduced the number of beds that would be built at the new youth detention centre at Werribee South. Parkville Detention Centre would be kept open and would have a "proper gender-focused program to untangle the boys and girls with separate programs that deal with their individual needs". Malmsbury will have a “real emphasis” on TAFE and vocational education and training and Orygen has been contracted to provide mental health interventions across all three precincts, he said.

Reform was also needed for the youth justice workforce, he said. "We need to strengthen and lengthen the period of training our frontline workforce gets, and we will no longer be advertising these roles as 'no experience required', because this is one of the most challenging, but equally the most rewarding job you'll ever have."

Those frontline workers would be backed up by psychologists, speech pathologists and peer support "to ensure we have a very strong youth justice system", he said.

The two-day conference also heard sessions on what was behind so-called riots in youth detention centres in Parkville, Don Dale, NT, and Banksia Hill, Western Australia, on the criminalisation of children in out-of-home care, on the successful justice reinvestment project in Bourke, NSW and on education in youth justice institutions.

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