‘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)