Victoria’s peak advocacy body for young people expressed deep concern at today’s announcement by the Victorian Government that youth justice custodial services, community based youth justice and youth justice policy will move from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Justice and Regulation.
‘This is a very troubling move,’ said YACVic CEO Georgie Ferrari. ‘We need a youth justice system which focuses on turning young people away from a life of crime – not acclimatising them to life as adult criminals.’
The move appears to be prompted by concern about recent violence at the youth justice centres in Parkville and Malmsbury. But the youth peak argues that these incidents were prompted by poor staffing capacity, exceptionally high numbers of young people being held on remand, and the failure of the system to deal appropriately with young people exhibiting behaviours caused by trauma, mental illness, intellectual disability and drug use.
‘The problem is not that a therapeutic, age-appropriate approach has failed,’ said Ms Ferrari. ‘The problem is that it wasn’t really tried. Treating teenagers like adult criminals will only train them for lifelong cycles of crime.’
In the past, Victoria was admired by child welfare experts for recognising young people’s immaturity, vulnerability and potential to make positive changes if supported by good adult role models. Victoria’s young offender rate is much lower than the national average, and the number of young people sentenced in the Children’s Court has been dropping rapidly in recent years.
‘A very small number of young people are committing high-volume, serious offences, and we need targeted, expert interventions to address this,’ said Ms Ferrari. ‘But some of these children are as young as ten, and many are coming from backgrounds of extreme trauma and disadvantage. What capacity does the adult justice system have to help them?’
The youth peak body welcomed the news that youth justice would remain within the portfolio of the current minister, but reiterated fears about the capacity of the Department of Justice and Regulation to work effectively in this space – including with young people who are not dangerous offenders.
‘Most young people who come into contact with the justice system don’t end up being imprisoned, and they don’t need to be,’ Ms Ferrari explained. ‘Most young offenders either “outgrow” their bad behaviour or are successfully diverted by some of Victoria’s excellent youth diversion programs. It’s vital that these “low risk” young people are dealt with through age-appropriate programs which recognise their immaturity and their potential for change. We fear the adult justice system is not qualified to lead such work.
‘We’ll be seeking assurances from the Victorian Government that our community won’t lose the aspects of the youth justice system which are working well,’ said Ms Ferrari. These include youth crime prevention and diversion initiatives, education for young people in youth justice centres, and the ‘dual track’ system, which strives to keep very vulnerable 18-21 year olds out of adult prison environments.
The youth peak noted that a major review of the youth justice policy framework is currently underway within the Department of Health and Human Services.
‘The findings of this extensive review are likely to be highly valuable in helping to build a better youth justice system,’ said Ms Ferrari. ‘It’s vital that the review is allowed to continue, and that its recommendations guide future reforms in this space.’