It’s time for a new direction for Victoria’s struggling youth justice system. Our community needs expert, targeted action to address the drivers of crime, keep young people out of the prison system, and support them to turn away from offending and grow into adults with positive connections to family, culture, education and work. 

Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic), the state peak body for young people, welcomes the release of the Youth Justice Review and Strategy: Meeting needs and reducing offending (Penny Armytage and Professor James Ogloff AM). The review calls for the development of a new Youth Justice Act, a 5-10 year Youth Justice Strategic Plan, and a clear articulation of the purpose and desired outcomes of the youth justice system, including the principle that detention should be the ‘option of last resort.’ 

The Victorian Government has accepted all of the review’s 126 recommendations in full or in principle, and has committed an initial $50 million over four years to implement the priority recommendations.

YACVic welcomes the review’s emphasis on the need to direct young people away from crime as early as possible. At present, the reviewers note, a mere 1% of youth justice investment is allocated to early intervention programs and only 3% to court-based diversion and restorative justice. YACVic supports the review’s calls to shift the focus towards diversion, early intervention, appropriate community-based supports and programs to transition young people successfully out of the justice system. 

The review also argues the need for a highly skilled and well-supported youth justice workforce. At present, the reviewers argue, staff are too often left to deal with young people showing highly complex or challenging behaviours, without adequate supervision, planning or clinical knowledge.  Steps recommended to address these problems include the introduction of a ‘key worker’ role, the conversion of casual staff to permanent roles, cessation of use of agency staff, and refreshed staff training in dealing with problem behaviours. 

In turn, staff must be able to ensure young people’s access to the services they need. In particular, the reviewers argue there must be: 

  • A more rigorous, consistent and expert screening process for young people entering custodial settings, to assess their risks and needs.  
  • More action to address offending risk while young people are on remand. 
  • Programs tailored to address high-risk violent offending, including through a new therapeutic intensive intervention unit. 
  • Priority access for youth justice clients to services to address mental health needs, alcohol and drug use, disability and family violence.  
  • A Youth Justice Mentoring Program for young offenders, targeting those who do not have pro-social adults or peers.
  • A multi-systemic therapeutic approach to engaging with the families of young offenders. 
  • A pilot program between the Department of Education and Training and the Department of Justice and Regulation to respond to ‘pre-offending’ young people who have been suspended or expelled from school for aggressive behaviour. 

YACVic considers that these interventions, if implemented well, could be of tremendous value to young people, their families and our community.  

Meanwhile, inside youth justice centres, the reviewers call for changes to the daily routine. They urge that the centres operate around a properly structured day, with balanced access to education, health, recreation, life skills and rehabilitation services. Young people should spend as much time as possible outside of their bedrooms and should spend at least two hours outdoors each day. 

Also positive was the reviewers’ support for the original concept of the ‘dual track’ system, which allows some vulnerable young people aged 18-24 years to serve their sentences in youth justice centres instead of adult prison. The reviewers raise concerns that these young people have been subject to restrictive and punitive treatment inconsistent with the philosophy of dual track, and they urge a return to the program’s original aims. 

The review recognises that Victoria’s youth justice system does not impact equally on the whole community. In particular, YACVic welcomes the report’s emphasis on the need to address the serious over-representation of Aboriginal children in the justice system. Aboriginal young Victorians are 14 times more likely to be placed on a youth justice order than their non-Aboriginal peers. While the Children’s Koori Court has shown strong results, access to this option is limited. Meanwhile, less than 1% of youth justice roles are designated as Koorie positions. The review calls for a dedicated Young Offenders Strategy within the Aboriginal Justice Agreement, as well as increased resourcing for Aboriginal community-based programs to provide early intervention, supervision and intensive case management. 

The reviewers also identify the need for responses to other vulnerable groups who are over-represented in the youth justice system. These include: 

  • Young people with a disability. The reviewers call for the establishment of a Youth Justice Disability Framework, and a stronger focus on meeting the disability needs of young people in custody and supporting them to access the NDIS. They call for more action to ensure young people with disabilities can participate in rehabilitation programs. They also call for the creation of disability support worker positions to advocate for young offenders. 
  • Young people from Pacific Islander, Maori and African backgrounds. The reviewers recommend the development of a strategy to reduce over-representation of these groups and deliver programs in a culturally safe and effective way through engagement with local communities. 
  • Young people from the child protection system. The reviewers identify that much better information-sharing and service integration is needed between the two sectors. 

The review also makes special reference to young women in custody, whose small numbers have left them subject to poorer access to supports than their male peers. The review calls for a standalone operating model for young women and new efforts to ensure their equal access to opportunities, including education, health and rehabilitation services. YACVic welcomes this addition to the review. 

However, there are some recommendations of the review which YACVic regards with concern. We are disturbed by the calls for youth justice staff to be armed with OC spray, batons and restraint belts – especially in light of revelations of abuses of children in prisons in other parts of Australia. 

The review’s suggestion of revisiting the value of a trauma-informed approach also raises concerns for YACVic. The reviewers voice some scepticism about efforts to respond to trauma amongst youth justice clients; they note that not all young offenders have experienced trauma, that trauma alone does not explain all offending, and that translating therapeutic approaches into non-clinical contexts requires significant resourcing. 

YACVic would not deny these points. But given the very high rates of abuse, neglect and trauma experienced by young people in youth justice centres, and given the severe impact trauma can have on a young person’s development and conduct, we find it difficult to envisage an effective youth justice response that is not trauma-informed.

We look forward to working further with the Victorian Government and the youth sector in response to this significant review, to deliver better outcomes for Victoria’s young people and the wider community.