Failing kids, failing the community
The kid’s “parents” - his “parents” are his mum and her current boyfriend - don’t give a stuff. He hates school, and teachers are relieved when he truants. He will not likely complete the school certificate.
He’s never learnt to control his tongue, and his is the discourse of the gutter. He’s already been before the children’s court a couple of times, and is not scared by the police – in fact one of his highs is the foot chase after a bit of rock throwing.
His security and identity are found in his small group of mates. He can look forward to a life, to quote Hobbes, which is poor, brutish and nasty. Unfortunately for the tax payer, it will not be short.
Now I’ve been reading the coverage of new research and statistics on juvenile crime. Too many kids locked up, aboriginal kids over-represented, incarceration having no deterrent effect. In the last month, I’ve also been forced professionally to review risk and security for a youth facility where local kids are causing problems and have decided to take on the Police.
If you are involved in working in the area of youth and crime, you already know that we are failing both kids and the community when it comes to prevention and justice. Here’s a big part of my solution – more police …
The principles in reducing and preventing juvenile crime and anti-social behaviour should be straight forward. Policy and strategy should honour the rights of the community members to safety and ‘quiet enjoyment’ in their lives. We should honour the work of law abiding families in bringing up their children to be good citizens by enforcing the law against young law breakers.
We should also, however, recognise that some adults fail to raise their children properly, fail to care for them, and fail to socialise them. When these kids end up running foul of the justice system, we should balance community safety with a regard for the chance for social development that they have been thus far denied. Their rights in that regard are set out clearly in international instruments such as the Covenant on the Rights of the Child, and appropriate practice is set down in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice.
I can only talk about my own State. For a long time NSW has lacked the political leadership needed to tell the community what is required in youth crime and justice. The message that must be championed is based on a paradox – re-socialising dysfunctional, delinquent kids is relationship and resource intensive, but it is cheaper and more effective in the long run than detention centres and prisons. For example, it costs $11 per day for youth conferencing, and $556 per day for custody. The former focuses on shaping a young citizen, the latter builds peer connections to other criminals.
For some reason, NSW has several times the number of kids in detention that Victoria has. Over half the kids locked up are aboriginal. We are locking more and more kids up on remand, yet over 80% don’t end up getting a custodial sentence when they face court – that suggests that the detention is for convenience, and not due to the seriousness of the crime. Some of the gains made in lowering incarceration in the 1990s are being lost in this regard, and there appears to be a move away from the Young Offenders Act, a key element in positive and successful juvenile crime strategies in the 90s.
Somewhere between 30% and 50% of crime is committed by kids and young adults under 25. And there is a good chance that a young person who comes before a court will end up involved in a criminal act as an adult. But if you add the number of Youth Liaison Officers, Youth Case Managers and School Liaison Police together, less than 2% of NSW Police Force is allocated to targeted youth engagement and crime prevention.
I believe – passionately – that most dysfunctional kids can be helped, that most kids that come into contact with Police can be turned away from crime. For intervention to work, though, it must be built on an intense engagement around a single, consistent and strong adult relationship and an alternative peer setting. Kids need an adult committed to them, and not a committee of social workers and public servants (as interagency case management often becomes).
I’m not soft on young criminals. In fact, I think what is needed is tougher, but more generous love. I favour formal, enforced contracts with the young person that may include conferencing with victims, work orders to address damage, compulsory training attendance, and restricted associations with other offenders.
In that regard, I favour the assumption of a lead role for Police Officers rather than social workers in the core relationship with young teenage offenders. I think the number of Police Officers allocated to working directly with young offenders should be doubled. And I think that the current lack of coordination and sustained programming within the different parts of the NSW Police Force Police, and by Police Officers with Juvenile Justice Officers, should come to an end through the creation of Youth Intervention and Support Teams, built around that one-to-one relationship with the young person.
Finally, in terms of the substance of the support given to the young person, education, training and employment must be a focus, with more resources for alternative school programs, and greater investment in flexible, competence based training to strengthen employability.
Long-term change for the kid I described at the start of this contribution young comes from a fundamental, deep change in their identity - how they see themselves and want to behave. It is forged through a connection to new adult and peer relationships that confirm the benefits of responsible behaviour and citizenship.
We have a Premier in NSW who has a declared interest in tackling disadvantage for young people. We have an Opposition Leader who shares that interest and is willing to move away from simplistic ‘law and order’ rhetoric. What NSW needs at the end of its current review of juvenile justice is leadership from both so we can properly resource the programs that we know can turn young, dysfunctional lives around, and better serve the safety of the community at the same time.
- Chris Gardiner is the CEO of PCYC and a member of the Young Offenders Advisory Council. These views are his personal views.
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