Grave Concerns Over Youth Justice Reforms
12 June 2017 at 11:00 am
More than 50 Victorian social service agencies have voiced “grave concern” over the government’s proposed changes to the Youth Justice Bill.
In a joint open letter to the Victorian Parliament, 50 signatories called the proposed measures “arbitrary” and “ punitive” and said such measures would open channels for discriminatory behaviour and harassment of vulnerable youth.
“Some of the measures introduced by the bills are not evidence based and undermine the foundations of the youth justice system,” the letter said.
The letter warned such measures could be counterproductive and were “likely to cause further harm to children and young people, and place them at risk of becoming chronic, long-term offenders.”
The open letter, authored by Smart Justice for Young People and signed by VCOSS and youth service providers, related to the Children and Justice Legislation Amendment (Youth Justice Reform Bill) and the Justice Legislation Amendment (Protective Service Officers and Other Matters) Bill, both tabled in Parliament on 24 May.
The proposed amendments would extend the powers of Protective Service Officers (PSO), see teens aged 16 and older who have committed serious crimes be tried in an adult court, and abolish the dual tracking system, which means teens between the ages of 18 and 21 could be sent to an adult prison.
“Time in adult detention risks creating young people who are angrier and hardened into criminal behaviour. The proposed change contradicts research that shows that young people who spend time in adult prison are likely to be more traumatised than when they went in, and more likely to re-offend on their return to the community, than young people who exit youth detention,” the letter said.
“Further along these lines, we also have grave concerns about the proposal in the bill that children aged over 16 charged with particular serious offences will have their cases heard in adult courts. This proposal blurs the lines between ‘children’ and ‘adults’, and undermines the specialist rehabilitative youth focus of the Children’s Court.”
The letter said other reforms in the Youth Justice Reform Bill were discriminatory as they seemed to “suggest that some children deserve the opportunity to be rehabilitated, while others should receive punitive treatment.”
The letter, co-signed by the Law Institute of Victoria and the Human Rights Law Centre, said such discrimination could be a breach of the government’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the “Beijing Rules”).
“All children deserve the chance to access the help they need to turn their lives around, reach their potential and live safely and productively in their communities. We know most children who commit crime are not in school, come from violent homes and don’t have positive role models. Funnelling these children into prison and keeping them there for longer does more damage and puts us all at risk of further harm when these young people return to the community,” the letter said.
The proposed changes to the Protective Service Officers and Other Matters Bill will see an extension of PSO powers to randomly stop and search children without a warrant, request their name and address, and apprehend children under an emergency care warrant.
Signatories for the letter warned such an extension of powers could lead to an increase in harassment of children and young people and “arbitrary teen or racial profiling of vulnerable young people”.
Instead of extending the PSOs powers, the letter called on the government to explore additional training and skills for PSOs to work “respectfully and appropriately” with children with complex issues.
The letter urged government to delay further discussion of the proposed reforms until the public release of Youth Justice Review conducted by Penny Armytage and Professor James Ogloff.
“We are confident that implementation of this report would ensure that reform of Victoria’s youth justice system proceeds based on the best available evidence,” the letter said.
The letter also called on the government to “urgently adopt the recommendations by the children’s commissioner to address infrastructure issues, staff shortages, casualisation of the workforce, management practices and use of isolation in youth justice centres”.
Finally, the letter called on the government to address the underlying issues behind youth crime.
“We must make the most of every opportunity we have to engage children and address any circumstances of disadvantage behind their offending, and support them to prepare to make a positive and productive contribution to the community,” the letter said.
VCOSS CEO Emma King said the proposed reforms were “dangerously regressive” and they would make the state’s youth justice system “cruel and less effective”.
“Increasingly, Victoria is adopting policies that deliberately hurt young offenders and stymie their rehabilitation, for no meaningful gain,” King said.
“These bills fly in the face of a growing body of evidence on ‘what works’ in youth justice.”
King said it was “alarming” that the government could suggest that only “suitable” young people should be given the opportunity to rehabilitate.
“All Victorian children caught up in the justice system deserve the opportunity to rehabilitate,” she said.
“Our politicians shouldn’t be throwing any kids in the ‘too hard’ basket.”