Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic), the state’s youth peak body, is concerned by the Liberal National’s policy commitment to introduce a new youth ‘boot camp’ if elected.

Liberal National leader Matthew Guy has stated his government would spend $5m on “cadet-style training programs that provide structure and discipline along with mental and physical fitness”. The camp would be “designed in consultation with serving and former police and military personnel and have a focus on the values of honesty and respect underpinned by the importance of discipline and team work”. It has been proposed as an alternative to a custodial sentence in youth justice facilities.

While we acknowledge the policy’s intention of diverting children and young people from incarceration, we assert that boot camps are not appropriate or effectual ways to support and rehabilitate children and young people who have entered the justice system.

Substantial research evidence shows that boot camps do not prevent children and young people from reoffending.  Academics have also raised fears about boot camps creating a “vengeful justice system… founded on fear and terror”.

The large majority of children and young people in Victoria’s youth justice system have experienced abuse, trauma or neglect. Almost 40% have been in the child protection system and around a quarter show “issues concerning their intellectual functioning”. The justice system is 14 times as likely to place an Aboriginal young person on a justice order compared to their non-Aboriginal peers. (We encourage everyone to note the Koorie Youth Council’s Ngaga-dji report, which gives voice to the stories of Aboriginal children around Victoria with experiences of the justice system, and makes recommendations for change.)

These are vulnerable children and young people who have been failed by the adults and systems supposed to protect and support them. They need care, support and opportunities to move through extremely challenging circumstances. Being forced to undertake a militaristic program about ‘values’ and ‘respect’ will do little to help them or the wider community.

Evidence shows that children and young people with strong protective factors in their lives are very unlikely to end up in the justice system. These include safe and loving families, strong connections to culture, schools which keep all students engaged, good health and wellbeing, a pathway to a decent job, support to recover from any early trauma, and a proper say in what happens in their own lives. 

Rather than spending $5m on a boot camp model shown not to succeed in preventing youth reoffending, we strongly recommend all parties make policy decisions to increase the amount of early intervention activities that prevent young people from becoming involved in crime. These include programs that offer mentoring, counselling, life skills and increased education and employment opportunities. Increasing the number of trained, supported youth workers around the state will also give children and young people more access to trusted adults in their lives, who can offer guidance and support when they need it.

In addition, all parties must commit to long-term funding for communities to design and lead responses to issues like intergenerational poverty, family violence, employment and education, disability support, and connection to culture.

It is also worth noting, yet again, that the number of young Victorians involved in offending has fallen significantly over the past decade – in 2015, less than 2% of under-18s were alleged by Victoria Police to have committed a crime – and most young people who get in trouble with the law are classed as 'low offending'.  We are therefore troubled by the boot camp proposal’s moral focus and unmerited ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric. 

As part of YACVic’s #vicyouth2020 plan to make Victoria the best state it can be for all young people, we are advocating for a justice system that respects and keeps everyone safe.