The youth justice ‘crisis’: the story behind the media coverage

The panel, led by Prof Arie Freiberg, at the discussion on youth justice. Picture: KIRSTI WEISZ

By KIRSTI WEISZ

Hardly a day goes by without a story on youth justice being seen in Victorian newspapers this year, according to Prof Arie Freiberg, the chair of the Sentencing Advisory Council.

“We weren’t talking about youth justice in the past five years but now we’re talking about it too much,” said Prof Freiberg.

The Sentencing Advisory Council’s Law Week event took on the issue of Youth Crime, Youth Justice and explored a different scenario to that often portrayed in the media.

Opening the discussion yesterday, Prof Freiberg offered a scenario of a young person with a troubled past to the panellists. The panel included the president of the Children’s Court Judge Amanda Chambers, Commissioner for Children and Young People Liana Buchanan, police prosecutor and acting Sen-Sgt Sherril Handley and Anglicare CEO Paul McDonald.

The scenario Prof Freiberg provided was of Michael, a hypothetical young person who had grown up in an unstable environment with parents who were dependent on alcohol and drugs. At five years old, Michael’s parents divorced and his mother re-partnered to a man who ended up abusing Michael both physically and emotionally.

Judge Amanda Chambers said the situation was not at all “uncommon” in terms of the young people she saw coming through the Children’s Court.

“Overwhelmingly, the majority of the work undertaken in the Children’s Court is actually in what’s called the child protection area,” she said.

“What tends to get lost when there is a lot of focus on the nature of offending by very young people are the circumstances of those young people.

“Very often they too are the victims of abuse … so when we talk about victims and offenders, what we see in the Children’s Court are young children who are indeed both.”

Judge Chambers then referred to the Youth Parole Board’s annual report which revealed that 62 per cent of young people being held in custody were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect in 2014.

She said that this part of the debate was often lost.

Michael’s story was taken further by Prof Freiberg: the audience discovered Michael had begun acting out in primary school and showing violent tendencies.

Prof Freiberg asked what Paul McDonald, the CEO of Anglicare, thought could be done to help Michael, resisting the urge to expel or suspend him from school.

“Michael wants predictability, he wants routine [and] he wants certainty,” Mr McDonald said.

“Michael doesn’t have that and that’s why he’s acting out. All Michael wants to do is belong to the group.

“Now how do we get him to belong to the group while at the same time stop him from … acting out? If we want kids like Michael to succeed in school, we have to put some investment beside them inside the classroom, not pointing him out as being the ‘problem boy’ but actually resource the classroom.

“I’m a great believer in the fact that the mainstream school systems can absorb these kids if we resource them.”

 Children’s Commissioner Liana Buchanan said opportunities to help people in Michael’s situation were being missed.

“When we are looking at kids in the youth justice system and the experiences that reflect some of Michael’s story, the story I see daily is how many opportunities as a whole service system … we miss,” Ms Buchanan said.

Michael was soon taken away from his parents after one of his teacher’s reported him to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and eventually he found himself in residential care.

To listen in to the full session, click the link above. 

At the age of 15, Michael was charged with making graffiti and property damage. As a result, he went through the Children’s Court and Judge Chambers said there were several sentencing options available in this situation.

“There are some diversionary or restorative justice opportunities in the Children’s Court to achieve two things: to avoid stigmatising Michael as an offender at a very young age and to significantly support him in the community to address what led him to be in the Children’s Court,” Judge Chambers said.

Only a few years later until Michael was back in front of a Children’s Court judge. But this time the offence was much more serious. He had stolen bikes, thrown rocks onto the freeway and caused a car accident. He was also caught using drugs.

Prof Freiberg asked why the court should treat him any differently to an adult, considering the seriousness of the charges.

Ms Buchanan said this was “unfortunately the narrative” she saw all too often in Victoria.

“We have had a different system for children, and we have had it for over a hundred years now, for the simple reason that children are different from adults,” she said.

“Their brains are still developing … particularly the parts of their brains that affect reasoning and problem solving and consequential thinking.

“Children under 18, all the evidence suggests, are more open to peer pressure and peer influence … importantly they are far more likely to be rehabilitated so if we are really interested in having a justice system that is about community safety and stopping reoffending, then it makes sense to treat children differently, it makes sense to put everything we can into trying to support them.”

Soon after leaving residential care as is required at 18 years old, Michael was once again facing criminal charges. He pleads guilty to armed robbery, aggravated burglary, theft of a motor vehicle and causing serious injury.

At this point, Prof Freiberg asked Acting Sen-Sgt Handley if this was a typical situation the saw in her work as a police prosecutor.

It makes sense to treat children differently, it makes sense to put everything we can into trying to support them – Children’s Commissioner Liana Buchanan 

“This trajectory is typical of someone in Michael’s situation. So a child that enters the criminal justice system at such a young age with such complex problems and needs, is someone who repeatedly comes back before the court and repeatedly offends,” Sen-Sgt Handley said.

Sen-Sgt Handley said there was a “new cohort” of offenders who entered the criminal justice system at a later age and who were engaging in violent crimes.

“We need to take into account that sometimes these children may have a similar story to Michael but their story might not have been in Australia so we might not have had the oversight of that and we haven’t been able to be involved,” she said.

“At the end of the day, they are still children, they are still entering the system.”

To end the discussion, Prof Freiberg offered two potential pathways for Michael who was now in a youth detention centre.

In the first scenario, Michael broke out of the youth justice centre with his friends and was charged with armed robbery, serious injury and carjacking. At 19, he would be charged as an adult.

The second option showed that Michael found a love of art in the youth justice centre. When he was released on parole, he went to arts school and saved up money working as a contractor. Eventually, he had his first solo art exhibition.

Ms Buchanan pointed out that while Michael’s circumstances might not be the story of every child in youth justice, two-thirds of the young people in youth detention centres had been involved in child protection.

She said there was a shared responsibility to look after these children when they first came to the attention of the state.

“The reality is as a community we get outraged when we see children and think of them being subject to abuse, neglect or whatever kind of trauma [but] we turn that outrage very quickly on the young person … when he or she starts to manifest the impact of that trauma through offending or substance abuse or some less palatable behaviour,” she said.

“We’ve got to change that, otherwise all the efforts of the people in this room and the people on this panel would be for naught because community sentiment will be against us.”

Law Week 2017 started on May 15 and will run until May 21. You can find more information by clicking this link.