Children And Justice Legislation Amendment (Youth Justice Reform) Bill 2017 Second Reading

7 Jun 2017

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I rise to speak on the Children and Justice Legislation Amendment (Youth Justice Reform) Bill 2017. I state at the outset that the Greens cannot support the vast majority of this bill, although there are some very worthwhile elements in it. For example, the bill provides a legislative basis for a youth justice diversion program, which is something that the experts and those people looking to reform the youth justice sector have been calling for for a very long time.

We also have youth control orders, although we do have some concerns about how they might be implemented, which my colleague Ms Springle, the Greens spokesperson on youth justice matters in the other place, will address. It does appear that these will be an additional sentencing option for the courts, so young people who otherwise would be sentenced to custodial terms will be able to serve their sentences in the community, where hopefully they will have access to the supports they need to help address the underlying causes of their behaviour. These are worthy elements. That is why we are so disappointed that the rest of the bill just seems to add to the problem rather than proposing genuine solutions.

There is no denying or getting around the fact that the government is in crisis over youth justice, and it is a crisis that has been many years in the making. I think the blame firmly lies at the feet of both the previous government for their cuts to the then Department of Human Services and the current government for allowing these problems of staff shortages and lockdowns to continue year after year once it learned about them.

There are two ways of addressing this crisis. One is to look to the very substantial evidence base that is out there as to what works and what does not work to prevent young people from offending in the first place and to stop them reoffending. I am sure if the government looked to that evidence base, it would be trying to get as many kids out of detention centres as possible. Teenagers and young adults who commit these very serious crimes are generally dealing with major childhood trauma. Addressing that trauma and the behaviours it causes should be front and centre of any policy program or any solutions aimed at making the community safer. That said, the Greens are pleased to see that the diversion program and the youth control orders have made it into this bill.

But there is another way of addressing the crisis, and that is to buy into the mass panic that is being generated by the media and the opposition, with the government now bending over backwards to look as tough, harsh and evidence-free in this area as possible. It is to lock up even more kids for even longer in even harsher conditions, even though all the evidence in the world tells you that that is what generated the crisis in the first place and even though the evidence shows that locking kids up only makes them more likely to commit violent criminal offences. It is an approach that is expensive, it is an approach that is counterproductive and it is an approach that underpins the measures in this bill.

It is a very bad idea to determine what happens to a young person on the basis of the type of offence they have committed, but that is what this bill does with its new categories of serious youth offences and the implications that flow from them. It is a bad idea to lock up teenagers in adult prisons, but this bill makes that more likely. It is a bad idea to give victims even less of an opportunity to participate in decisions affecting their cases, but that is what this bill would do for certain serious offences.

It is a bad and lazy idea to simply increase maximum sentences and expect that that will somehow deter anyone from committing a crime, but that is what this bill does. It is a really bad idea to roll back the dual-track system for young adult offenders, but that is what this bill would achieve. It is a really bad idea to name and shame young people who commit crimes, because it locks them into a public identity as a violent criminal. It is a bad idea to remove discretion from courts, magistrates and judges and the Youth Parole Board and for Parliament to impose certain conditions on certain sentences that make very little sense to that particular offender, but that is what this bill does.

This bill appeared well before anyone had an opportunity to see the report into Victoria’s youth justice system prepared by Professor James Ogloff and Ms Penny Armytage. Today we received an open letter from a number of organisations. I will read in some of those organisations to the record as there are too many to go into all of them. They include Anglicare Victoria, Berry Street, the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, the Inner Eastern Local Learning and Employment Network, the Koorie Youth Council, Melbourne City Mission, the Salvation Army, the Victorian Council of Social Service, the Victorian Student Representative Council, Whitelion, the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria and the Youth Support and Advocacy Service. All these organisations work with the very young people this bill addresses.

I think it is worth taking the time to read out large portions of this open letter, which addresses both this bill and the bill addressing the increased powers for protective services officers that is also on the notice paper. The letter states:

We urge you to publicly release and adopt recommendations from the major review of the youth justice system by Penny Armytage and Professor James Ogloff. We are confident that implementation of this report would ensure that reform of Victoria’s youth justice system proceeds based on the best available evidence.

It goes on to say:

Other reforms in the youth justice reform bill seem to suggest that some children deserve the opportunity to be rehabilitated, while others should receive punitive treatment. All children are owed equal protection in accordance with our obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and the UN standard minimum rules for the administration of juvenile justice …

All children deserve the chance to access the help they need to turn their lives around, reach their potential and live safely and productively in their communities. We know most children who commit crime are not in school, come from violent homes and don’t have positive role models. Funnelling these children into prison and keeping them there for longer does more damage and puts us all at risk of further harm when these young people return to the community.

Time in adult detention risks creating young people who are angrier and hardened into criminal behaviour. The proposed change contradicts research that shows that young people who spend time in adult prison are likely to be more traumatised than when they went in, and more likely to reoffend on their return to the community than young people who exit youth detention.

A far more productive focus would be for government to address issues contributing to the current volatile environment and some of the incidents occurring within youth justice detention centres.

In this vein, we urge government to urgently adopt the recommendations by the children’s commissioner to address infrastructure issues, staff shortages, casualisation of the workforce, management practices and use of isolation in youth justice centres.

Nobody wants more victims. We must make the most of every opportunity we have to engage children and address any circumstances of disadvantage behind their offending, and support them to prepare to make a positive and productive contribution to the community. Detention and punitive programs are likely to cause further harm to children and young people, and place them at risk of becoming chronic, long-term offenders. We need to do everything we can to keep our children safely away from prisons.

We call for debate on the bills to be suspended until after the release of the Armytage-Ogloff review and for a consultative meeting with government to identify appropriate evidence-based legislative and policy responses to issues in our youth justice system.

That is an open letter from the experts from those very organisations and people who are working directly with the young people who are affected by this bill. They are calling for the debate on this bill to be deferred and to have consultation with the government to implement reforms that are actually based on evidence.

What we have here is a government that is ignoring the evidence, ignoring the experts and engaging in a race to the bottom with the opposition — just trying to implement the toughest, harshest, most evidence-free policies in relation to young people who commit offences. That is a real shame because the real loser in all of this will be the Victorian community. Surely we all want a safer community and we want to bring hope to those young people who have been through hell. For those reasons, the Greens will not be supporting this bill.

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