Treating young offenders harshly serves no purpose

Treating young offenders harshly serves no purpose

This piece was first published in the Herald Sun

YOUTH justice in Victoria is at the crossroads. The Supreme Court has ruled, yet again, that it was unlawful for the Victorian government to lock up children at the state’s most notorious maximum security adult jail.

The government has finally done the right thing and moved children out of Barwon prison and into a normal youth justice facility. It can now put this dark chapter behind it and get on with the job of ensuring we have a humane system that promotes community safety through rehabilitation.

Victoria has a good record of one of the lowest youth crime and youth imprisonment rates in the country. The number of children aged 10-17 committing crimes has dropped significantly over the past five years. That record was badly damaged by the riots at Parkville and the major escape from the Malmsbury facility. Those incidents understandably caused great concern in the community and were traumatic for those affected.

More evidence is coming to light of the neglect of the youth justice system by successive governments that created the conditions for these problems to arise.

Problems with the Parkville infrastructure that were identified by the damning Ombudsman’s report of 2010 weren’t properly addressed. The number of kids on remand, detained waiting their trial, rose sharply. High numbers of children on remand make the youth justice population less settled and harder for staff to manage safely. They make it harder to promote rehabilitation.

Permanent staff were replaced with agency contractors, deskilling the workforce. Staff shortages led to excessive lockdowns of children, which escalated tensions.

An expert review commissioned by the Victorian government into riot incidents at Parkville in March last year confirmed that “almost every level” of secure staff had expressed concern about the staffing shortages and lockdowns as a contributing factor.

These are the issues that the Victorian government must address as it rebuilds the youth justice system.

Sending children to a maximum security adult jail was never the answer. We represented a number of boys aged 15-17 who were locked up at Barwon in four legal cases. The government settled one Supreme Court case, lost two more and lost its appeal.

The court rulings documented the incredibly harsh conditions at Barwon, including extreme solitary confinement, limited time outdoors, overuse of handcuffs, the use of capsicum spray by adult prison guards and the denial of proper education. There were also disturbing reports of assaults by guards.

Children in custody will be released at some point. The question we have to ask ourselves is, what do we want to focus on while they are detained? Do we want them coming out hardened and on the path to a life of crime or do we want to focus on giving them the best possible chance of living a productive life in the community?

The interim report of the Northern Territory royal commission into the abuses at Don Dale speaks about harsh, bleak facilities that are not fit for accommodating children and that aren’t suitable workplaces for staff. Facilities that are punitive, not rehabilitative.

The royal commission’s report emphasises that young people who commit serious crimes must accept responsibility for the harm they cause, but they must also be given every chance to get their lives on track and not leave custody more likely to reoffend.

Similar things can be said about Barwon. Instead of locking children up in small concrete cells for 23 hours a day, we need to show them that better options exist and give them pathways to reach their potential.

The government has made some recent positive moves, expanding mental health services in youth justice in the state Budget and undertaking a complete review of the youth justice framework, looking at how it can better work to cut reoffending.

The government’s good response to family violence provides a road map for other criminal justice areas. It’s relying on the evidence about what works and investing properly — in prevention, in supporting victims and in addressing offending.

It needs to take a similar approach on youth justice. Children in custody have their whole lives ahead of them. Inhumane conditions in youth jails are in no one’s interests.

Hugh de Kretser is the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre