Youth Justice - Smart Justice for Young People


Youth Justice - What is the problem?

Since the disturbances at Moomba in 2016 there has been a negative media narrative on youth crime in Victoria, and most recently on "African youth gangs". This has triggered a more punitive, law and order response. Not only does this approach fail to make the community safer, it demonises young people and their communities, ignores what is behind youth offending, can result in punitive measures and mistreatment, and it also distracts from the critical youth justice reform work that needs to be undertaken.

The statistical backdrop to this narrative is that youth crime is generally on a downward trend.

  • of the 550,000 young people aged between 10-17 living in Victoria, only approx 1.4 per cent are processed by the police, 0.6 per cent sentenced by the Court and a mere 0.02 per cent or 103 ordered by the Children’s Court to be detained.(SAC July 2016)
  • youth offending is declining rather than spiking with a  4% drop in under 25 year olds & 5% drop in 15-19 year old offenders from 2015 to 2016
  • in 2016–17 there were 8,280 youth offenders in Victoria, a decrease of 5% (446 offenders) from 2015–16 (ABS 2018).
  • the Victorian Crimes Statistics Agency has confirmed that since 2009-10 there has been a 42 percent decrease in the number of unique offenders aged 10-17 years in Victoria
  • in the past five years, the number of young people sentenced in the Children’s Court of Victoria has decreased by approximately 43 per cent ( from 5844 in 2010 to 3341 in 2015).
  • However there has been a rise in crime by  a small cohort of young people who have graduated rapidly to very serious and frequent offending namely carjackings, aggravated burglaries and home invasions.  The data shows 180 young people are responsible for committing one quarter of all youth crime. Victorian Crimes Statistics Agency (September 2016: p7)  and police have estimated between 350 and 500 young offenders are involved.

And the research tells us that some of Victoria's most vulnerably and disadvantaged children are in contact with theh criminal justice system.

  • Young people from areas of lowest socioeconomic status were 7 times as likely as those from areas of highest socioeconomic status to be under supervision in Victoria (AIHW 2015)
  • 41% of young people subject to youth detention in 2014-15 were also involved in child protection  (AIHW 2016)
  • 64% of young people in the youth justice population in detention have current or present child protection orders, 62 per cent had previously been suspended or expelled from school , and  66% had a history of both alcohol and drug misuse (Youth Parole Board Annual Report 2015-16)
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are over- represented in the state’s youth justice system, being 11 times more likely to enter the system and making up around 16% (253) of the state’s youth justice custodial or community orders (2015-6) (AIHW 2016)
  • the more priors a child accrues at a younger age, the more likely they are to reoffend.  Young people who commit their first offence between 10 and12 years of age have an overall reoffending rate of 86 per cent, with 62 per cent being for offences of violence. (SAC 2016)

This serious repeat offending is  frightening for and concerning to the community and warrants special attention and investment.  Police, government and the community are working on how to respond to this serious offending. Government needs to commit significant funding to  further investigate and tackle what is behind serious youth offending and develop intensive, targeted and multidisciplinary interventions.

However we need to be measured in our response and not target young people of certain ethnicities  or demonise young people generally.

Government should not abandon aspects of Victoria's specialist system for youth offenders that has served the state well in diverting young people from offending and promoting rehabilitation. The overall reduction in youth crime, shows that some programs are having a postive impact in diverting children from the system.

Rather government needs to focus on what the data and research tells us works, what is required, on maintaining, strengthening, or where necessary introducing evidence-based, tailored responses.

The recommendations in the report of the Youth Justice review and strategy: meeting needs and reducing offending  conducted by Penny Armytage, and Professor James Ogloff, Director of the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science, presents an opportunity to address many of the current challenges in youth justice.

The Review's 126 recommendations have received in principle support from the Vicotiran GOvernment.

The Review recommends a new Act and a strategic plan providing overarching policy framework and vision for a contemporary youth justice program

Implementaion of the Youth Justice Streaty should draw on oppportunities across portfolios inlcuding housing, mental hoealth, child protection and educaiton.

The Review highlights the need for strong investment across a continuum of community based intervetnions with a focus on early intervetnion, assessment, community supervision and transition support.


What action do we want?

Bipartisan comitment to implement priority recommendations in the Review.  

  • Develop a clear overarching vision and guiding principles for the youth justice system.
  • Make rehabilitation a central focus
  • ensure custody is an absolute last resort.  
  • Set targets to reduce the number of young people in the system and address the overrepresentation of some groups (e.g. Aboriginal and / or Torres Strait Islander)
  • Improve assessment and interventions to the individual needs of children and young people in the system. Provide tailored support, delivered by qualified, experienced staff with whom they have a relationship, especially at times of high risk (e.g. transition points).
  • Fully reinstate the dual track system

Raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to 14 years of age.

Invest in more programs that intervene early and target the cuases of crimes. Focus investment on 'hot spots' where youth offendingf rates are high. Equipp communiites with evidence on what works, then let them decide what to do in their local areas.

Task police with reducing the number of young people coming into the system, by mandating or incresing use of referrals, cautions and diversion.

Invest in high quality and accessible diversion, bail supervision and intensive support in their community.

Drastically reduce the numbers of children in remand via expanded bail support services and expedited court matters


Victoria's youth justice facilities

Over the last couple of years the Victorian youth justice centres have struggled to deal effectively with a more violent cohort coming into the system and their subsequent interaction with staff members and others in detention. Their presence has highlighted some deficiencies that have been observed by the youth justice sector for years, an overly punitive culture, inadequate physical structure and inadequate staffing.

While improvements have been made, successive governments have failed to make the significant investment needed to address the long-term issues that are increasingly apparent. There is no short-term quick fix to the serious problems affecting youth justice, which have their origins not only in ageing infrastructure but in the complex interplay of health and human services, education and the justice system.

A recent Ombudsman’s report on youth justice facilities at the Grevillea unit of Barwon Prison, Malmsbury and Parkville identifies a shift in offending patterns by some young people held in juvenile justice facilities, with evidence from the Department of Health and Human Services describing the current cohort as: “… more sophisticated, socially networked, calculated and callous offending, characterised by rapidly escalating levels of violence and disregard for authority and consequence.

This cohort of offenders are undeniably presenting significant challenges to the system, Government, management, staff and other young people in youth detention. However the system should be flexible and expert enough to deal with these challenges. We should not be responding with punitive and ineffectual approaches, including moving these young people into the adult system. This will not make the community safer.

Another major theme emerging from the Victorian Ombudsman's report is that extended lockdowns of young people are contributing to the tension that leads to disturbances.

 “It is evident that this is affected by a toxic combination of staff shortages and increasing overcrowding. It is predictable that a regime of lockdowns for young people will create unrest, and equally predictable that more lockdowns will follow that unrest.”

This disturbing practice is confirmed in report from the Commission for Children and Young People, which found staff shortages are driving prison officers to lock-up kids on a regular and prolonged basis, creating the preconditions for violence and self-harm. The report highlights that without attention to staffing, an effective behavior management regime, a reduction in inhuman practices and measures to better protect the mental health of children, we cannot hope to see real improvement in the system.

What action do we want?

  • Youth Justice must continue to treat children differently to adults 

    Children should be subject to a system of criminal justice that is separate from the adult system. Given Youth Justice has been transferred into the Department of Justice and Regulation,  Youth Justice must  continue to operate in line with the Children, Youth and Families Act and be based on a culture, ethos and legislative framework that places the interests, developmental needs and rehabilitation of children and young people at the forefront. Children and young people in the youth justice system do not belong in an adult prison.

  • Keep punitive and adult justice style security approaches out of youth detention.  This means no batons, physical or chemical restraints or OC sprays and a stop to the practice of lockdowns.

  • Professionalise the workforce (by requiring minimum qualifications), increase training and professional development.

  • Create safe and rehabilitative youth justice facilities (small and close to community) based on best practice design and interventions. Make education the central focus.

  • Provide youth specific support for 18-25 year olds in the adult corrections system. This would include introducing new and/or expanded accommodation options and practices for young adults in prison, along the model developed by the Youth Unit in Port Phillip (Recommendation 18 of Ombudsman report).

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