Locking up every young crim might not be the answer
When it comes to law and order policies, the simple and emphatic call to lock ‘em up is hard to beat in the popularity stakes. It is often the most appropriate reaction, too, whatever the response might be from our softer judges or more cosseted members of academia. Jail is a valid form of retribution by civil society towards those who behave in an uncivilised way. Locking people up often makes perfect sense, even though it doesn’t always happen.
But at what point should society decide that law-breakers should be precluded from the community and locked away? Should this hard-line approach extend to minors who have committed serious crimes, in a one-strike approach which puts them away in the first instance if they have done something bad?
Or should they be given a chance to duck jail, provided they sign on and complete a meaningful and rigorous anti-criminal behaviour program, under the gaze of a police officer?
The NSW Police Citizens Youth Clubs has just released some interesting and important research which shows that the community attitudes on incarceration are much more nuanced and considered than might be assumed to be the case. The research has at its centre a dramatic mismatch between spiralling rates of youth crime and the resources allocated by police management to working with young people at risk of becoming offenders.
The background to the research is the quite staggering rate of youth crime in NSW. At least one-third of all serious crimes in NSW are committed by people aged 10 to 19. That’s crimes such as assault, robbery, break and enter and car theft. At last week’s PCYC 2012 Youth Policing Conference, NSW Police Minister Mike Gallagher revealed in his speech that while many categories of crime were falling in NSW, crimes by young people had gone up by 18 per cent in the past 12 months.
Given all this you might expect that the NSW Police Force would be doing everything it can to allocate more resources to interventionist strategies to get in the faces of young people and steer them away from a life of crime. The reverse is the case. Be it for reasons of funding, resource allocation, or a desire to meet arrest rates rather than working on longer-term prevention strategies, just over 1.5 of every 100 officers are directly involved in working with young people.
In a force comprising 16,000 officers, 127 police work in youth command, 80 as youth liaison officers, 40 as school liaison officers, and three as school safety and incident response officers. Obviously more police will come into contact with young people incidentally in the course of their daily work but in terms of full-time dedication to the task of youth policing, 1.5 out of 100 is a pretty meagre batting average. And for many of the police who do some into contact with young people – when they have just broken the law – they are already so well advanced on the path of criminality that any form of intervention is probably too late.
There is a significant gulf between what the public perceives to be the job of police, and the job the police are actually doing, with 75 per cent of people saying that at least 10 of every 100 officers should be involved in youth policing. A further 79% stated that police should be working with school principals to deal with behaviour problems and truanting, while a comprehensive 98 per cent said frontline police resources should be devoted to educating young people in schools about the types and dangers of criminal behaviour.
The most interesting finding from the PCYC survey is that 80 per cent of people believe the priority for police should be diverting young offenders from re-offending rather than putting them into court. This figure surprised me, I thought it would have been lower, and that the “lock ‘em up” sentiment would prove stronger. But the proviso appears to be that the public will support diversion as long as the cops are involved, rather than leaving the process to a group of social workers.
PCYC chief executive officer Chris Gardiner points to the success at the PCYC in Redfern where the local area commander his junior officers are now spending three mornings a week boxing with local kids who were formerly involved in crime. The crime rate in Redfern has come down and much of it is due to the “work” of police in doing something as simple as exercising with young kids – the kind of thing which many in the police hierarchy probably don’t regard as work at all, because they are under so much pressure to make sure that the crime rate in their Local Area Command isn’t outstripping the neighbouring LAC.
Gardiner says there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way police management approaches the issue of youth crime.
“You can call it tough sympathy or prudent compassion, where the police try prevention first, then diversion,” he says. “Arresting people shouldn’t be the only way.”
Gardiner says that detention should be an option only when all else is failed – but that things are less likely to fail, as the Redfern example shows, where police have contact with young people before their lives go off the rails. One thing is for sure, the best way to teach fledgling criminals to become career criminals is to lock them up early with those who already have made a career out of it.
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