We need to get the balance right in youth crime changes

We need to get the balance right in youth crime changes

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) is heartened by the establishment of a legislative youth diversion scheme, but has expressed concern that the Victorian government’s proposed youth crime laws do not seem balanced in favour of long-term solutions around youth offending.

VLA’s Executive Director Criminal Law Ms Helen Fatouros said the community is rightly troubled by the escalating behaviours of a small and deeply troubled group of young people, and the fact that the current system doesn’t seem to be working for this group.  

‘However, we should not lose sight of the fact that this group makes up less than four per cent of young people who have contact with the youth justice system,’ she said.

‘The way in which more seasoned organised adult offenders appear to be exploiting young people who feel locked out of our society is also of serious concern. 

‘More punitive responses need to be balanced with the aims of the Children Youth and Families Act, which recognises that children must be treated differently from adults – and that rehabilitation is paramount.

‘The proposal to increase the sentencing power of the Children’s Court in terms of length of detention and supervision in combination with the proposed youth control order could provide real positives. We see the potential of these proposals to help young people confront and address the underlying causes of their offending.’

Ms Fatouros said Victoria Legal Aid is encouraged that a legislative youth diversion scheme will be established in Victoria. ‘Such a scheme reflects the importance of minimising young people’s involvement with the criminal justice system. For such a scheme to be most effective, the decision of whether to order diversion should rest with the court to enable equal access to justice and diversion programs.

However, Ms Fatouros said: ‘While some of the reforms appear to have rehabilitative goals some of the measures introduced into Parliament today appear heavy-handed and go too far. Harsh approaches will not only be damaging to young people in the short term, but we could end up paying a price down the track if we keep turning to "tough", instead of thoughtful, solutions.

‘We have particular concerns about the prospect of more young people having their cases heard in the adult system. This contradicts evidence of what works, will be more expensive and undermines the specialist youth framework of the Act and Children’s Court.’

Ms Fatouros said that Victoria’s approach over the past two decades had emphasised early intervention and viewed jail as a last resort, reserved for the most serious offences. ‘Time in detention risks creating young people who are angrier and hardened into criminal behaviour. Punitive approaches don’t create an environment in which young people can begin to turn their lives around.

‘We know instinctively what the science confirms: that young people’s actions are often the product of immaturity and the impulsive nature of adolescence. Our efforts, if they are drifting towards criminal behaviour, should be to keep them out of the criminal justice system so they can begin to turn their lives around, and as so many do, “grow out of” their offending.’

Ms Fatouros said: ‘In some cases there will be no alternative to detention. If we’re really serious about protecting the community and reducing re-offending we need to focus on how we treat young people in youth detention, and the supports we make available post release.

‘This includes trauma informed care whilst in detention provided by appropriately qualified and supported staff, and upon release a real chance to reconnect with education and employment.

‘Victoria Legal Aid also looks forward to the public release of the Government’s review of youth justice by former Corrections Commissioner and Secretary of the Department of Justice and Regulation, Penny Armytage, and forensic psychiatrist Professor James Ogloff. 

‘We will look in detail at the reforms so that we can understand the implications of the changes for our young clients and for the youth justice system more broadly.

More information

Read Youth crime reforms must be balanced with rehabilitation focus.

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