Children as young as 14 could be locked up just for speaking to the wrong person, under new laws introduced today by the Andrews Government. Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic), the state's peak body for young people, is distressed by this excessive legislation and we call for it to be stopped.

The government claims the Justice Legislation Amendment (Unlawful Association and Criminal Appeals) Bill 2018 will target “serious offending by outlaw motorcycle gangs, organised crime families and small numbers of violent young people”. However, the Bill has alarming implications for all of our children and young people. Under the proposed changes to state laws, Victoria Police officers at the rank of Sergeant and above would be able to issue a notice to a person as young as 14 “not to associate with a convicted offender”, regardless of whether the young person has a criminal conviction. YACVic has grave concerns this will drag some young people into the justice system and prevent others from making a fresh start.

At present, it’s unclear what “association” could involve. Could this mean that a 14-year-old will risk prison time for contacting someone on social media or speaking to them in the street, even if they’re neighbours? We contend that this is neither fair nor workable. We support concerns raised by the Federation of Community Legal Centres and Human Rights Law Centre that this is anti-democratic.

The government claims the Bill will “assist police to prevent vulnerable young people becoming involved in serious and organised crime”. However, evidence shows the best things that divert children and young people from crime are safe and nurturing families, caring relationships with trusted adults like youth workers, strong connections to culture, and positive school engagement. If we are serious about preventing criminal offending by young people, we should strengthen these factors, not increase the potential for punitive policing that traps more young people in the justice system.

Unfortunately, our current system is a testimony to our community’s failure to provide a good start to every child and young person. A comprehensive review of youth justice in Victoria found that a mere 1% of investment went into early intervention programs and only 3% to court-based diversion and restorative justice. Meanwhile, we know that once children enter the justice system they are at very high risk of experiencing poor wellbeing outcomes, and subsequently growing up to become adult offenders. This is completely unacceptable.

We must work harder to ensure all young people grow up with the support and opportunities that make crime unattractive. A good place to start is by increasing the number of trained youth workers in our state, especially in areas facing the biggest challenges. This should include a new initiative to recruit, train and employ youth workers from diverse communities.

We again urge all parties to stop unjustly and unethically targeting children and young people in law and order debates. We remind voters that the overwhelming majority of young Victorians are not involved in crime, and our youth offending rate is much lower than the national average. We also encourage our members and the wider youth sector to continue to play an active role in combatting deliberately divisive media and political commentary

Further comment: 
Leo Fieldgrass – CEO Youth Affairs Council Victoria – 0439 254 667 or [email protected].