Youth Justice

Youth Crime


What’s the problem?

Since the disturbances at Moomba in 2016 there has been a negative media narrative on youth crime in Victoria. 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, ignores what is behind youth offending, it can result in punitive measures and mistreatment, and it also distracts from the critical youth justice reform work that needs to be undertaken.

The 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
  • 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).
  • Victoria has the lowest rate of children (10-17) under justice supervision on an average day in Australia.

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.

This is frightening for and concerning to the community and warrants special urgent 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 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, on further investigating and tackling what is behind serious youth offending, and on maintaining, strengthening, or where necessary introducing evidence-based, tailored responses.

The current government Review of the youth support, youth diversion and youth justice services presents an opportunity to address many of the current challenges in youth justice. The Review will deliver a Youth Justice Strategy to enhance government's response to the needs of vulnerable cohorts into the future, drawing on opportunities across portfolios such as mental health, child protection and housing.

We need to tackle the causes underlying youth offending and get supports in as early as possible. For example better engagement of children and young people in education is one of the key solutions to reducing offending.

 What action do we want?

  •  Adopt evidence based solutions and strengthen parts of the youth justice system that work well.   The current Review of the youth support, youth diversion and youth justice services will provide expert advice and evidence based responses to address many of the current challenges in youth justice, including specific serious offending behaviours.
  • Prioritise investment in place based community-led early solutions that prevent offending behaviour, and promote community safety.
    Place based approaches, such as justice reinvestment, involves investing in disadvantaged communities to identify, develop and implement local evidence-based, tailored responses to youth crime issues. Such an approach is more likely to have a real and sustainable impact on the complex social issues underpinning youth crime.
  • More investment  to tackle high volume offending
    Much is known about the small cohort of young people who are responsible for many of the burglaries, home invasions, and car-jackings. Police data shows that about 180 young people are responsible for committing 25% of all youth crime, with an estimated 350- 500 for the most recent serious violent offending. Government needs to commit significant funding to develop intensive, targeted and multidisciplinary interventions.

We know that children in the criminal justice system generally represent the most disadvantaged in our community, many being current or former clients of the child protection system, with an overrepresentation of indigenous children.


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 effeective behavoiur managment regime, a reduciton in inhuman practices and measrues to better protect the mental health of children, we cannot hope to see real improvement in the system.

What action do we want?

We hope SJ4YP's submission informs the Victorian Legal and Social Issues Committee Inquiry into Youth Justice Centres  recommendations which demonstrate bipartisan leadership which will rebuild public confidence in the justice system and return Victoria to a position of leading the country in how we secure community safety through an effective youth justice system.

An effective youth justice system requires:


Children and young people in adult prison

What’s the problem?

Children and young people in the youth justice system do not belong in an adult prison.

Smart Justice for Young People’s objection to the gazetting of the Grevillea Unit at Barwon Prison as a youth justice center are well documented.

We are supportive of the challenges made by the Human Rights Law Centre about the legality of placing children in Barwon adult prison. The conditions at Barwon are manifestly unfit for children.

The Ombudsmans’s report published a series of letters by Liana Buchanan, Principal Commissioner of the Commission for Children and Young People to Minister for Families, Children and Youth Affairs, Jenny  Mikakos.  In Ms Buchanan’s letter dated 25 November 2016 she writes:

We understand the boys are spending 23 or 22 hours per day in their cells with no reading material, pens or paper. When the are permitted to leave the cells, they are only permitted in the units common area. The boys have no access to fresh air and are not permitted to enter the unit’s exercise yard.” 

We have also heard allegations of young people in the Grevillea Unit being sprayed with capsicum spray, being beaten and injured by guards, guards being assaulted and the disturbing report of a young person attempting to take his own life.

Back in 2014-15 the Victorian Ombudsman announced an investigation into the adult prison system  prompted by the growth in prisoner numbers, concerns about rates of re-offending, and the cost to the Victorian community. This investigation did not include youth detention (18 & under) but did provide findings and recommendations in regard to young people under 25 in the adult prison system. On 17 September 2015, the Ombudsman tabled her report. Click here for the media release and here for the report.

The report includes the following data on young adults:

  • That 12% of the adult prison population are under 25
  • There was a 162.2% increase in prisoners under 25 between 2008 & 2013
  • There was an 163.2 % increase in young women prisoners between 17 and 24 b/w 2008 & 2013
  • The recidivism rate for those under 25 was 52.7 %
  • Interventions targeted at young offenders provide a significant opportunity to break the cycle of re-offending before it becomes entrenched.
  • The potential exists for a great deal of harm to be done to young offenders if ineffective or unsuitable interventions are applied.
  • Young offenders are likely to have faced a number of challenging circumstances including trauma and neglect, family dysfunction, untreated psychiatric illnesses & limited cognitive and developmental maturity.
  • Young prisoners are at risk of post traumatic stress & at high risk of rape & assault by older prisoners.
  • The complexity of this cohort means that a mainstream adult response will not meet the different individual needs of each offender.

What action do we want?

  • Immediately transfer children out of the adult  Barwon Prison                                                                                                                             
  • Introduce 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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