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Youth justice is not the government’s fault – but it’s their job to fix it

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Julie Edwards, CEO, Jesuit Social Services. This article was originally published in The Age.

The problem we are facing with the youth justice system hasn't developed overnight. The present government has inherited a problem that has been some years in the making. So how did we get here?

One view is that successive governments have taken their eye off the ball with regard to youth justice; another is that our present crisis is not, or not only, due to negligence but more because of governments actively pursuing the wrong approach.
 
 

It is clear that over a number of years the youth justice system has not received the attention it deserves – and the cost of that neglect is now apparent. The youth justice system sits between two much larger systems – the child protection system and adult corrections. It is a sad fact that the child protection system is a feeder for youth justice – with about two-thirds of children in the youth justice system having a child protection history (and yes, children is the correct term given their age – they have the brains of children, immature and developing, regardless of their sometimes adult appearance), and that the youth justice system is a feeder for adult corrections – with many people in jail having been transported along the conveyor belt from child protection to youth justice and then to adult corrections.

Right now the broader system is, at best, under severe pressure; and, at worst, badly broken. This is evidenced by the fact about 80 per cent of young people in custody at Parkville are on remand, meaning they have not been convicted of an offence. There are a number of unfortunate consequences associated with filling up youth detention centres with unsentenced people, creating a vicious circle. Primarily, there is the direct negative effects on these young people themselves – and let's remember that when the cases go to court, most young people either do not receive a sentence, or get a community sentence. Further, having so many young people on remand means that the system gets blocked up, causing under-servicing and delays in processes such as appearance at court and resolution of cases. This in turn leads to further overcrowding of youth detention centres.

In the not too distant past, Victoria led the country with its more progressive approach to youth justice – as demonstrated by our lower rates of youth offending, imprisonment and recidivism. This was a result of what could be called an "informal compact" that saw both sides of politics, the police, the judiciary, the department and the community sector more or less aligned in an effort to prevent youth offending, divert young people away from the criminal justice system wherever possible, and rehabilitate those caught up in a cycle of offending. There was strong leadership around this issue; an understanding that this was the best way to both turn around those precarious lives and keep the community safe in the long run, as well as skilled, experienced staff at both policy and program levels. So what happened?
 
 

It's hard to say what occurred first, but over recent years we have witnessed politicians of both persuasions compete with each other to demonstrate their "tough on crime" credentials. We have also seen an irresponsible and sensationalist media intent on creating fear in the broader community, ignoring the facts and the evidence about what works, and creating a pressure cooker environment that politicians are all too tuned in to – which they, respond to by turning up the heat and increasing their tough rhetoric. Under the previous government we also saw severe cuts to the public service that resulted in the loss of expertise and skill, thereby severely curtailing its capacity to lead and advise in the areas of policy development and program implementation.

It doesn't have to be this way – as we know from our own experience here in Victoria and also from many countries overseas that take a different approach and reap the benefits.

Youth justice is a pivotal part of a larger system. Of course we should first invest our efforts earlier down the conveyor belt in order to prevent disadvantage and criminal behaviour occurring in the first place. But once young people start behaving badly and beginning to commit offences we should do all we can to divert them from further penetration of the criminal justice system – not draw them into the seemingly bottomless pit of a life of offending. So when a child hits the youth justice system, we are presented with an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity.

That opportunity looks something like this – getting to the bottom of what is going on in the young person's life and addressing the specific factors that lie at the heart of that young person's offending. This means forming a relationship, listening and learning. There is nothing soft about this approach – it's challenging because it's personal, it's real. It involves working with the young person to face up to facts about where his (and it's usually "his") life is going, about who he is and who he wants to be; it's about taking responsibility for where he's going. This is not a generic, one size fits all intervention; it's targeted to the real issues that the young person needs to confront and address, and the actual offending behaviour that he needs to step away from.

This approach needs to underpin our interventions with young people both in the community and in custody. In custody, it means ensuring that the environment is safe; that the culture is healthy; that staff are appropriately qualified to help young people address the underlying causes of their offending and that this happens in a consistent way; that young people remain connected to family and community and are supported to make the transition out of custody in a way that is likely to be successful.

The present situation is not of the current government's making. But it is now their responsibility to rectify it, not exacerbate it. The government is to be congratulated for instigating a review of youth justice, whose findings should be handed down by April 2017. We can be hopeful that this review will outline a positive way forward and we should expect that the government will commit appropriate resources to get the youth justice system back on track.

Julie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services. This article was originally published in The Age.
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