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Not so ‘explosive’ report on youth justice

Is there an opportunity for a new youth detention model?

Recent media coverage  about an internal secret report (March 2016 ) to Government about the youth detention system is a missed opportunity for public debate .

Sadly, it has largely generated hysteria about a ‘crisis’ in the youth detention system and fuelled the political football match between two old rivals: ‘Tough on Crime’  and  that perennial underdog  ‘Youth detention system is failing.’

The report recommends :

  • a total physical redevelopment of Parkville and an upgrade of other secure youth facilities;
  • an increase in staff;
  • more permanent , experienced & competent staff; and
  • a focus on rehabilitation and not tough -on -crime .

These are sound. Surely the provision of adequate and effective staff and a focus on rehabilitation are a no brainer for a functional youth detention system?  Physical redevelopment is a big one. Until the recent spate of damage and escape incidents it was perhaps not high on the agenda.

The Victorian Government has been slow to bring  about change  however it does have a major internal review near completion. To its credit, the Government has initiated a raft of early intervention and prevention programs to reduce offending . They have also consulted widely and directed significant funding to tackle the the challenging cohort of young people who are engaged in serious and repeat offending.

What is not heartening is the unhelp view of the Matthew Guy’s ‘Tough on Crime’ team, who just wants to put away and forget any young offenders.

If no one else can act as the umpire of good sense, Youthlaw will step up. We challenge all the political parties to support introduction of a new model, such as the youth detention model used in Spain . The Spanish model is highly effective and could easily be introduced in Australia.

23 years ago, Spain had a youth detention system similar to Victoria’s. They were operating in a similar context to us – with overcrowded adult prisons and young people flowing seamlessly into adult prison. They also were dealing with similar types of youth crime.

The success of the Spanish model is clear, as across Spain there is now a 75% success rate of young people reintegrating into society.  Youth detention facilities in Spain rarely have violent incidents, rarely use restraints and security guards represent only a small percentage of their staff. Handcuffs and batons are never used; they have no recorded incidents of self-harm and no reported escapes.

In our view, the keys to this successful model are:

  • Ensuring that staff interacting with young people are educators and are not guards (educators have no role in physical restraint & semi educators can use restraint if required);
  • Ensuring that security guards are employed but that they do not interact with the young people;
  • Providing adequate staffing. For a 61 bed facility they employ 80 educators, 20 semi educators and 7 security guards (solely security & good order);
  • Mandating all staff have a degree qualification;
  • Requiring initial induction for young person is set at 20 days and includes full medical & psychological assessment;
  • Ensuring each young person is seen by a psychologist daily and has an individual plan
  • Guaranteeing young people are in a facility as close as possible to their family and that family contact is encouraged and not unreasonably withheld ;.
  • Making sure managers/Directors of facilities are psychologists;
  • Judges/prosecutors visiting every 3 months;
  • Facilities are run by not for profit organisations;
  • Ensuring facilities are relatively small ( max population is 90); and
  • Requiring facilities include autonomous sections that enable young people to prepare for leaving detention.

The other benefit of the Spanish model is that they have a mix of facilities, including secure residences. The latter often house young people who commit violence against their parents. The facilities have a ratio of 11 educators to 10 young people and each provides a program of psychological support, education and vocational training.

Most impressively, the Spanish facilities not only produce better outcomes, but they cost one-third of those in England.

In addition to the facilities themselves, we can learn from the Spanish example about laws that have been changed to strengthen the objective of re-integration. This includes, at age 18 a young person’s criminal record being cleared.

You can read more about the Spanish model here:

We encourage all teams in the current political football match to call time on a stifling debate and make concrete suggestions so that our youth detention system tangibly improves.

-Ariel Couchman, Director

‘Youth crime wave’ needs smart, complex responses, not hysteria

Crime Statistics Agency say youth crime on the decline

 We have all seen the alarming reports in the media about youth brawls, carjacking and aggravated burglaries that have grown over the past 18 months in parts of Melbourne. There is no doubt this offending is disturbing and threatening to the general public.

Any public survey right now would no doubt come up with a consensus that we are in the grip of a youth crime epidemic and that we have a generation of youth out of control.

The reality is way different.

The number of young people offending generally continues to decline. This is not only the case in Australia but also internationally in high income countries such as Canada, the USA and New Zealand. Offending by 10 to14 year olds in Victoria has steadily declined over the past 10 years. At Youthlaw, we know this is particularly significant as offending at this age is a strong predictor of future repeat offending and imprisonment.

Even the normally expected peak in youth offending in the mid to late teens attributed to brain, hormonal & social development is on the decline in our state. The Victorian Crimes Statistics Agency confirms that since 2009-10 there has been a 42 percent decrease in the number of unique offenders aged 10-17 years. The number of 18-20 year olds committing offences has dropped by 20 per cent.

Researchers and crime statisticians suggest we now have a generation characterised by less risky behaviour. They are more secure, using fewer drugs and more engaged in education than previous generations.

Presumably it’s not so exciting to report on a youth generation that is well behaved or to explore why it is that a small group of youth are engaging in high risk offending.

But it is clear that the offending that has achieved the fearful headlines of recent times, while distressing for those involved, is being committed by a relatively small young people, each  doing a lot of offending. Even within this cohort, only a small number are committing the more alarming personal violence offences.

Victoria Police have a good handle on this group and the offences they are committing and are responding with intelligent and effective policing. They have targeted resources to respond to it and are consulting with experts. They have already arrested over 100 offenders. They recognise the wider group as vulnerable and are working with government and agencies on ways to intervene early to prevent future offending.

So who are the offenders? Police say they largely reflect the multicultural diversity of the community and many of the complexities across it. Many have dropped out of school and are estranged from their families. Motivations include anger and lack of hope, feeling locked out of society, having bad stuff going on at home, and the thrill that comes with the exertion of power and being part of a peer group and of getting access to money. Most live in areas of very high youth employment and disadvantage. Some are from very dysfunctional families. Some have disengaged from school as early as primary school.

What would help? The view of some of these young people (including those in detention) is insightful. They say more support for them and their families, not being judged, banning expulsion from school, and help for them and their families in getting a job.

Government, police and community leaders have met to share our expertise on how best to respond. Much is already happening. There is strong agreement that early intervention in school is a key, as is targeted mentoring & support. It is recognised that there are insufficient services and long waiting lists and this needs to be addressed. It is recognised that many young people from multicultural backgrounds feel marginalised.

We also need leadership to allay public fear and to outline the real facts. We don’t need screaming headlines such as ‘Youth crime rate soaring’ or ‘Youth crime crisis’ or  commentary that ‘youth crime is one of the biggest ­social and legal ­challenges ­facing Victoria ‘

We also need to consider the broader vulnerable youth population that we miss in this hysteria.

  • A staggering 10,000 vulnerable children who are dropping out of Victorian high schools, training and apprenticeships every year.
  • Over 7,000 young Victorians removed from their families last year due to abuse and neglect.
  • 6,117 young Victorians who do not have a home on any given night.
  • The impact on young people of an unemployment rate for 15 to 24-year-olds that is now 12.5 per cent, but in disadvantaged areas up to 17 per cent.

Ariel Couchman


Young People’s Legal Rights Centre (Youthlaw)


Call from youth peak to stop exclusions from schools


The Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVic0 has just released a fantastic report ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind? on school exclusion which calls on Gov’t to address the enormous number of young people who are being excluded from school through suspension, expulsion, reduced attendance, refusal of enrolment, and being ‘asked to leave’ a school.

The report highlights the appalling lack of data available, the impact of exclusion on already vulnerable young people and provides loads of examples and recommendations for change .

In Victoria up to 10,000 young people drop out of school completely each year. Some as early as primary school.

These young people are overwhelmingly vulnerable before this occurs. They are being pushed out, out of sight. Schools are under a lot of pressure to deliver good scores and get rid of underperforming kids. They don’t have sufficient funding & resources. Many have adopted harsh disciplinary and exclusionary policies.

See the YACVIC report here.

Youthlaw strongly supports YACVic’s stand on this issue & it’s recommendations. Early intervention in the education setting is a no brainer and will reduce enormous negative impacts that flow from vulnerable young people not receiving the support they need. This includes their mental & physical well-being, capacity to lead a fulfilling and positive life and broader costs to society of homelessness, mental ill-health, drug abuse and engagement in the criminal justice system.

Make a difference – Federal Election 2016

Did you know

  • 10,000 Victorian young people drop out of school completely each year
  • 6,117 do not have a home on any given night.
  • Over 7,000 were removed from their families last year due to abuse and neglect.
  • Last year one youth homeless service in Melbourne CBD had 7,211 visits from young people seeking help

Vote for candidates and parties that are for:

1. Federal funding support to implement the recommendations of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.

2. Restoring & substantially increasing funding of community programs and services that engage with vulnerable young people ( eg mental health, substance abuse and homeless support services)

3. Significant Investment in public education & pathways, programs and supports for young people at risk of or disengaging with mainstream education.

4. Funding of employment assistance programs that pay real wages and policy that paves the way to real jobs

5. National spent convictions legislation to reduce life long impacts of having a criminal record.

6. Adoption and implementation of a justice reinvestment approach to policy and programs by both federal and state governments and funding of Justice Reinvestment pilots with a focus on early investment in vulnerable children and young people.

7. Reversal of funding cuts & increased funding to community legal centres (including Youthlaw) that assist the most vulnerable to protect & assert their legal rights.