The conversation Victoria has to have: putting youth crime ‘to bed’

February 06, 2018 |

Police Commissioner Graham Ashton was right to say recently that we cannot look to police to put the issue of youth crime ‘to bed’. Equally we cannot look to police officers placed in high-risk secondary schools to combat youth crime. We are talking about bigger social issues than police can solve.

These those social issues can be solved, and there are many roadmaps for us to follow, but they don’t include fear mongering nor approaches that are tough on crime but not on the causes of crime.

Recently the response from both sides of Victorian politics has been to “get tough” and introduce or propose strict bail, remand, sentencing and parole reforms that are likely to result in more young people being jailed and filling the new proposed 224 bed $280 million high security youth detention centre at Cherry Creek , and the proposed expanded adult prison in Lara.

This is short sighted and doomed to fail. We saw that in the wake of the last ‘tough on crime’ election in 2010, when tough laws filled up youth detention centres, dramatically increased remand numbers and ultimately provoked unrest, riots and re-offending.

If sending people to prison is what is needed to make us safer, then Victoria should be all but crime-free by now.

The state has seen nearly a 70 per cent increase in the adult prison population over the last 10 years with numbers of people un-sentenced on remand having more than doubled since 2013.

Children are being imprisoned at a higher rate than ever before, up 63 per cent over 4 years to 2016.

And all the projections are for more unprecedented growth in Victoria’s corrections system, as a result of population growth, increased police (hence arrests) and tougher sentencing the prison population to reach 8300-8600 by next year.

This will cost billions of dollars. The corrections system already costs more than $1 billion to operate annually. It costs about $300 a day to accommodate an adult in prison and $1,482 to house a child in youth detention. In the previous two budgets alone the Andrews Government has invested $747 million.[1]

Expenditure on youth detention increased over 50 per cent from 2013-14 ($ 73.6 million) to 2016-17 ($108.3 million)

On economics alone this is not sustainable.

But it is not just that prisons are extremely costly – they are also damaging to those imprisoned and ineffective at reducing crime.

The drivers of serious crime are not being addressed. Young people with a history of childhood abuse and neglect progress from youth justice to adult prison. The vast majority of adult prisoners are still those with a history of disadvantage – one in four come from just two percent of postcodes, 85 per cent have not finished high school.

The unprecedented surge of prisoners has meant many offenders miss out on treatment and leave prison only to offend again. Nearly half reoffend and return to prison within two 2 years. This compares to just 20 per cent in Norway.

A rethink is needed…. a new long term, bipartisan approach to public safety, tackling crime, re-offending and reducing numbers in prisons.

Many other jurisdictions, in Australia and internationally, are having conversations about a transformative approach which involves investing in communities (not prisons) to address drivers of offending.

Victorians need to be part of these conversations.

Victoria needs a new, longer term, whole of community approach to crime and public safety. An approach that shifts resources we are putting into prisons and invests them instead in early intervention, crime prevention and diversion strategies that communities need, that tackles the underlying social causes (not just symptoms) of crime and prevents offending from occurring in the first place.

This approach, known as justice reinvestment, has the potential to not only help build stronger communities, reduce crime, reoffending and prison numbers, but also relieve pressure on the soaring Corrections’ budget.

We can learn from overseas success stories.

United States cities such as New York started focusing less on locking kids up and more on breaking the cycle of youth crime. Eventually large juvenile jails were shut down, and the savings were funnelled into community-based programs to keep young offenders out of the system. Over time, the results were compelling: from 2001 to 2013, the number of youths locked up in detention centres was halved. New York shut down 23 juvenile facilities, California closed eight, and Texas shut down another eight.[2]

In Australia we are seeing the seeds of similar success.

The remote New South Wales town of Bourke is piloting a justice reinvestment approach to tackle high rates of offences by young people, many of them Aboriginal kids.

Working together, the local community has spent a lot of time thinking about how to reduce offending and make the community safer. They are now implementing, in partnership with local service providers, a number of cross-sector initiatives or ‘circuit breakers’ to achieve this, including the very simple need for a learner driver program in Bourke.

The ACT committed to develop a Justice Reinvestment Strategy, taking a whole-of-government approach aimed at reducing recidivism by 25 per cent by 2025.

Victoria Police has acknowledged a small cohort of young offenders committing serious and repeat offences.

What about learning from the mistakes in the past and showing real leadership that acknowledges what Commissioner Ashton is telling us – that we need to step in before they begin to offend, to bring those social issues ‘to bed’.

Tiffany Overall, Convenor of Smart Justice for Young People

[1] The Report on Government Services 2018 – Youth Justice, http://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2018/community-services/youth-justice, p2

[2] http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/former-us-juvenile-jails-chief-urges-andrews-to-rethink-approach-to-teen-crime-20170318-gv124j.html

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