It is no answer to dump youths in adult jails after centre riots

It is no answer to dump youths in adult jails after centre riots

This piece was first published in the Herald Sun

We need to get to the bottom of what went wrong with the riot at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre. We don’t need lazy, kneejerk populist responses, like transferring kids to adults jails, which are designed to sound tough on crime and which in fact will only make things worse.

Time and time again, reviews of riots in prisons and youth jails show that good, proactive management could have stopped events from escalating.

At Parkville there have been reports of ageing facilities, poor conditions for children detained there, inadequate training and high staff turnover.

We need an expert, independent investigation to find out what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. We don’t need to abandon the youth justice system that has in many respects served Victoria well.

You wouldn’t know it from the public debate, but youth crime is dropping in Victoria. Police statistics show crime by 10-17 year olds dropped 25 per cent in the five years to 2014/15. The number of individual offenders aged 10-17 dropped 42 per cent over the same period. Court data backs up that trend.

Victoria has one of the lowest child crime rates in Australia. We also have one of the lowest rates of child detention. That is a good thing. It shows that you don’t have to lock up more children for longer periods to improve community safety.

Of course statistics don’t matter much if you’re the person harmed by crime. We need to drive youth crime down further. We need to stop the burglaries, assaults and other crimes. This is precisely why we need to do what works, not what’s meant to sound popular.

Many kids in youth detention come from backgrounds of child neglect, child abuse, family violence, mental illness, school expulsion and drug and alcohol abuse. Of course many children face those same challenges and don’t commit crime but research repeatedly shows that children exposed to those harms are at greater risk.

The simple fact is, if we want to cut youth crime, we need tackle these factors. Ignoring them, putting kids in an adult prison or building a new youth supermax unit, will only make us less safe.

Education is one of the keys to giving children who offend a pathway out of crime. Less than 10 per cent of adult prisoners finished high school or its equivalent. Parkville College, which provides schooling in the youth justice system, is a good news story here. It has quietly been achieving outstanding results for children it has been teaching. We should be proud of this model and asking for more of it.

Another promising approach comes from Bourke in NSW. Despite its small size, more than $4 million is spent each year locking up children and young people in Bourke. A justice reinvestment program is bringing police, government and community together to work up solutions that cut crime, save money and strengthen the community.

It’s common sense stuff, like the holiday program last summer that contributed to rates of malicious damage and family violence dropping to their lowest level for five years. The early signs are very positive and it’s a model Victoria should trial.

There is no doubt that Victoria’s system can improve. One of the major issues being overlooked is the extraordinarily high rates of children being held on remand — detained while they wait for their trial. About 80 per cent of children held at Parkville at the time of the riot were on remand.

Not only do high remand rates make it harder to manage the centre, they show a serious problem with how our bail system is working. We need to ensure children have access to bail programs including proper accommodation so that they’re not being locked up unnecessarily.

THE high rates of indigenous kids being locked up and the high numbers of children entering the youth justice system from child protection are two other major challenges.

The bottom line is that we need to treat children who commit crime differently from adults. We don’t let children drive cars, vote or buy alcohol because we recognise they aren’t yet “grown up”. Equally, we need to recognise it when they offend.

It’s no coincidence that the horrors exposed at the Don Dale youth jail in the Northern Territory, happened in a system that was run by the adult prison department. The Territory government’s response to the incident where children were tear gassed after being held in solitary confinement was to transfer them to the old, run-down maximum security adult jail.

Victoria must avoid the same mistakes. As well as being morally wrong and a breach of human rights, a criminal justice response that treats kids like adults puts them on a path towards a life of crime.

Hugh de Kretser is the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre