Juvenile justice to Corrections Victoria paves the way to more youth crime not less

Today the Victorian gov’t announced moving youth justice including youth detention facilities under the control of Corrections Victoria. This is before their own review is complete and before others are handed down. This move if unchecked will quickly pave the way for dismantling a differentiated response to juvenile offending. It will only lead to more crime not less.

The youth justice facilities at Malmsbury and Parkville have struggled to deal with a cohort of young people engaged in high repeat offending moving through the system over the past 18 months. Their presence has highlighted deficiencies that have been observed by the youth justice sector for years, an overly punitive culture, inadequate physical structure and inadequate staffing.

These deficiencies were identified in numerous reports to Government over many years. The latest , the 2016 Muir report, warned that a lack of permanent, experienced and competent staff and increased lockdowns could trigger escalated behaviours. The report cautioned against introducing tough-on-crime responses and instead should retain a vital focus on the rehabilitation of young offenders. The report recommended a major physical upgrade.

Producing better youth justice outcomes requires a look at the facts. Our youth justice system has to date been held up as exemplary, with low detention rates, diversionary features to reduce re-offending and a dual track that allows young vulnerable adults to be kept in the youth justice system rather than serve their time in adult jail. As for youth crime, the number of individual youth offenders in Victoria is on the decline and has been steadily declining over the past 10 years, as it has in most industrialised countries.

Repeat Victorian Governments have been slow to make any significant improvements to the youth justice system.  Now is an opportunity to look at effective models of youth detention and think outside the law & order tool box.

We only need to look at the highly successful Spanish juvenile system over the past 20 years to see what works.  They are dealing with high youth crime & high unemployment and yet need to use few restraints, have few violent incidents inside, no escapes and don’t use batons or handcuffs. Instead they have a high ratio of staff comprising mostly educators & psychologists and a lower number of security guards.  They have a 75% re-integration rate. They are even effectively turning around youth violence in the home, which is a crime on the rise here.

Key to this successful model is:

  • 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
  • Every young person has an individual plan that is consistently monitored.
  • Guaranteeing young people are in a facility as close as possible to their family and that family contact is encouraged and not unreasonably withheld;
  • Managers/Directors of facilities are psychologists;
  • Having a mix of facilities to meet the complexity and diversity of the youth justice population. An example of this is their secure residences that have a ratio of 11 educators to 10 young people providing individualized programs of psychological support, education and vocational training
  • Ensuring facilities are relatively small ( max population is 90); and
  • Requiring facilities include autonomous sections that enable young people to prepare for leaving detention.We encourage all teams in the current political football match to call time on a stifling debate about youth justice and provide leadership towards a new model so that our youth detention system tangibly improves. Ariel Couchman
  • Director
  • Most impressively, the Spanish facilities not only produce better outcomes, but they cost one-third of the common law & order variety in most of the world.