Victorian Youth Justice Crisis: An Interview with Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards

Information on this page was reviewed by a specialist defence lawyer before being published. Click to read more.
Julie Edwards

Fifteen youths from Victoria’s Malmsbury youth justice centre rioted and then escaped from the facility on January 25. This led to what Victoria police called a “small crime wave.” The last two teens were apprehended by police 24 hours after the breakout.

According to Victorian opposition statistics, this now makes a total of 29 riots in the state’s overcrowded juvenile detention centres over the last twelve months.

Their answer is to build a high security detention facility

Amidst calls for her sacking, Victorian youth affairs minister Jenny Mikakos said a new juvenile justice centre will be built. On Tuesday, the Andrew’s government announced Werribee South as the location for the new maximum-security facility. The 250 bed centre will double the state’s capacity to accommodate youth offenders.

And send in the troops

Premier Daniel Andrews outlined on January 27 that the government will be sending 40 adult prison guards into three of the state’s youth detention facilities: Parkville, Malmsbury and the new Grevillea unit. The prison staff will be armed, unlike youth justice workers.

The government is also considering deploying a Corrections Victoria specialist anti-riot squad to respond to incidents at youth justice facilities. Although at present, the Victorian Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 prevents this from happening.

As well as putting children in adult prisons

After rioting in Parkville youth justice centre last November, the government sent 15 youth detainees to the Grevillea unit at the adult Barwon Prison. Human rights groups have been critical of this move.

The Victorian Supreme Court ruled that the detaining of youth offenders in adult prison was unlawful in late December. On the following day, the state government responded by announcing they were reclassifying the Grevillea unit as a juvenile detention facility.

Around a dozen youths are still be detained there today, one of which, a 16-year-old, suffered a fractured neck after being bashed by fellow inmates last Monday.

The so-called youth crime wave

Over recent months, it’s been reported that a surge in youth crime has been occurring in Victoria. Police figures suggest that teen aggravated burglaries and car thefts have been on the rise.

However, according to Victorian acting assistant commissioner Sue Clifford, there’s been an overall decrease in the number of young people committing crimes, with a disproportionate amount of crime attributable to a small group of serial offenders.

The mainstream media has consistently linked these reoffenders to the Apex gang, especially those born in Sudan and the Pacific Islands. But, Victorian Crime Statistics Agency figures suggest that an overwhelmingly number of teen crimes are carried out by youths born in Australia.

A way out

The Jesuit Social Services runs the Youth Justice Community Support Service, which provides support for youth – aged between 10 to 21 – who are caught up in the Victorian youth justice system. It aims to reduce reoffending and develop young people’s capacity to participate in society.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Jesuit Social Services chief executive Julie Edwards about the crisis in the Victorian youth justice system and the services her organisation provides.

Ms Edwards, in your opinion, what’s going on within the Victorian youth justice system right now?

We used to have the jewel in the crown in terms of youth justice in Victoria. Because we have had, and we continue to be performing amongst the best across states and territories, in terms of having the lowest level – or second to lowest to the ACT at one stage – of offending, recidivism and incarceration.

For those of us who have worked in this area for a long time, we’ve identified a few reasons for why it was so good, which will indicate what’s gone wrong.

I like to talk about it as almost an informal compact that we had in Victoria some time ago, which was on both sides of politics. There was bipartisan support to an approach to youth justice that understood that we were dealing with children and young people, who were still developing and that that presented a unique window of opportunity to redirect their lives.

And so, then along with the police, the judiciary, the Department of Health and Human Services and also the community sector, we were working hard to keep young people out of the formal criminal justice system as much as possible. We’ve had a strong regime tariffs that have preceded incarceration. Whether they be diversion, group conferencing, or a range of other programs.

So what’s happened is a few things. I’d say that, in a sense, because it’s a relatively small system compared with, for example, child protection, and because it was actually doing ok until just before 2010, and performing well compared with other jurisdictions, I think people took their eye of it.

What we’ve got now is that it suffered from some years of neglect, in terms of having the policy framework updated, in terms of the practice. For example, there was an ombudsman report in 2010, which highlighted some problems, such as security, but did nothing to address the other issues, like the physical infrastructure or program model and staffing issues – which really needed to be addressed.

While there’s talk about therapeutic models, in fact, they haven’t been implemented and what you’ve had is a growing number of young people being detained because we’ve seen an extraordinary increase in the number of young people on remand.

Now mostly in the past we would have had 20 percent of people on remand and 80 percent sentenced. We’ve had the exact opposite. The Victoria youth justice system has 80 percent of young people on remand and 20 percent sentenced.

What that means is we’ve got a system full of people who have a lot of uncertainty. They don’t know how long they’re going to be there – a day, a week, 8 months. And until recently, because of that they were ineligible for programs, so they were basically bored.

And then along with that – yes, physical infrastructure does need to be addressed and improved – but we would say the main thing is that we need to improve or reinstate a more relationship-based approach and definitely that needs improving. Whereby, young people will have a better environment and they are fully occupied with programs that address the underlying causes of some of the trouble they are in – like literacy and numeracy – but also focus on criminal offending behaviour.

But we don’t have the model, or the appropriately qualified staff, within that model. So because it has been running down, and because it has been getting more unsafe for people, there’s been a problem with retaining staff. For example, we’re averaging about 40 percent agency staff. They don’t know the young people. They’re not qualified to do the work.

So it’s a bit of a toxic cocktail of problems.

Premier Andrews said he will be sending 40 armed adult prison guards into three of the state’s youth justice facilities. And there’s been talk of deploying an anti-riot squad to respond to incidents at youth justice facilities.

What do you think about these developments?

Look, I think it’s very sad we’ve got to the point where these are considered necessary options by some. And our view would be that we want to see youth justice remain in the Department of Health and Human Services, and not move over to adult Corrections.

And Victoria has a dual-track system for 18 to 21-year-olds, whereby, they can be dealt with in the adult system or the youth system. We want to see that maintained.

What we do have at the moment, even though, the number and rate of offending and offenders is going down, and we’re actually at an all-time low – which is very good, so there is no crime wave – what we do have, though, in Victoria, is a small group of young people committing serious and often violent offences.

So we do have a problem, I’m not minimising that at all. But what the situation has been lately, for all those reasons that I talked about, we have a system now that the government does need to get control of.

We think it’s a great shame that they’ve had to bring in adult Corrections staff, but the reality is that they need to turn the system around. And that’s going to take a bit of time.

On top of this, the state government has now announced they’ll be building a new high-security youth justice centre. This will double the state’s capacity to accommodate youth offenders.

Is building more detention facilities the answer to the state’s youth crime problems?

No. A new facility is a part of the solution, but what we need to see is a facility, or facilities – whether it’s new or the ones we’ve got improved – that need to be less institutional.

They need to be smaller units of perhaps six to twelve young people that are in a more home-like situation. With appropriate qualified staff, social workers and educators. With a strong perimeter or safe boundary, where you have security staff maintaining the borders of the site.

But we believe that the social worker, educator – that kind of socially qualified staff – should be the ones working with the young people day to day. And helping them learn living skills, so that they could be cooking in their unit, looking after the day to day affairs of the place: whether that be putting out the rubbish, doing some gardening, or looking after the local pets or animals.

They should be fully occupied during the day, so that they’re at school or doing sport or they’re in groups to address their problem behaviour. So at the end of the day they’re exhausted. And we think that that’s best in small settings.

So if there is a new facility, we would be very keen to see that it allows for stepping up and stepping down of security. So that some would be in a more relaxed environment. And some who need to be fully contained and securely held would be in a small facility, with appropriately trained staff, managing them.

I think at the moment we don’t have the capacity for differentiation amongst the different cohorts of young people that’s required. So if there’s a problem security gets ramped up everywhere, rather than being able to segment.

It’s more the principles of the new facility that we’d be keen to see maintained.

The state government sent 15 youth detainees to a unit of the Barwon adult maximum-security prison last November. Around a dozen are held there today.

What do you think about the government’s policy of holding these young people in an adult prison?

Well, we don’t agree with it. We think that no child should be – and that’s what we’re talking about children or young people – in an adult facility. We have legislation in Victoria, where if someone is 18 plus in that dual-track path that they can be sent to adult or youth facilities. And we think that’s appropriate. We think that’s good.

But for children under 18 – some of them have very big and adult-like bodies, but the reality is their brains are still in development – we’re keen to see them in a situation where rehabilitation is prioritised and the most likely outcome.

We think an adult prison is not the setting for that. We are also concerned that there hasn’t been transparency about who has gone into that facility. For example, they’ve reported recently, that there were a number of people who weren’t involved in rioting, but they have ended up there. So we’re concerned about that.

The mainstream media has attributed much of the recent incidents of youth crime to members of the Apex gang. It’s believed that the gang’s expansion can be linked to associations formed within correctional centres, especially the Parkville youth justice centre.

What do you think this says about Victoria’s current youth justice system?

The whole thing about gangs – we’re not really clear who or what these gangs are, and we’re very connected on the ground. I don’t really want to buy into the whole thing about gangs.

We know that what does happen though, when you bring people together that have done the wrong thing – who are vulnerable – what happens is you create a new peer group, where people can learn more tricks of the trade and further bad behaviour.

So all the research shows that incarceration tends to perpetuate bad behaviour or the likelihood of reoffending, rather than diminish it. And that’s why, regardless of whether we talk about gangs, or individuals who are influenced by others, the best option is, as far as possible, you use prison or incarceration as a last resort, and do the prevention work in the community that is necessary.

We know that a small percentage of postcodes are responsible for large numbers of the prison and youth justice population. So we would be keen to see more place-based prevention programs set up in the first place.

And then, if we think someone does start going off the tracks, we need to divert them from the justice system and really try and connect them back to school or the family, or address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour. And apply these other models, like restorative justice groups and conferencing as well, and keep prison as a last resort.

In April last year, the Victorian government invested $5.6 million to expand the Youth Diversion Pilot Program, which steers vulnerable young people away from future involvement in the justice system and works to reduce reoffending.

How does this program work? And how effective has it been?

Well, Jesuit Social Services were the organisation that won the tender to run the pilot. We ran it for 18 months and it was very successful.

The final evaluation hasn’t yet been handed down. So I haven’t seen that, but what we found from the interim findings is that 93 percent of young people who participated in the diversion program completed the program that was developed for them. That included things like going back to school, living at home, and connecting back to the sports club.

So it was highly successful. We’re very pleased that the Victorian government has agreed to roll that out across the state.

The only thing we’re disappointed about is we think it belongs in the community sector – with an organisation like Jesuit Social Services, or another community sector organisation – rather than be run by government, because basically it’s about diversion. And keeping people out of contact with the youth justice system.

But nevertheless, we’re very pleased that it’s being rolled out across the state.

Jesuit Support Services runs the Youth Justice Community Support Service. Can you outline what this service entails?

In that service, we’re referred young people from the department. So people they identify as being high risk or needing more intensive engagement. Typically, they’d be characterised by things like being homeless or having quite a strong offending background, have mental health problems, or alcohol and drug problems.

So we’re referred people. They can either be coming straight out of detention, or they may be in the community on a community based order.

We try to address the factors that might contribute to their offending and that includes, very practical things too, for example, addressing the issues I talked about: accommodation, connection to family, connection to some kind of learning or employment program.

And while it’s a very successful program, our concern is that only about 30 to 40 percent of people getting out of detention get access to a program like this. It’s limited, some people get it and some people don’t.

And lastly, it seems clear that the current punitive measures taken by the state government when dealing with marginalised youth involved in crime, along with the state’s system of youth incarceration, aren’t working.

In your opinion, what further steps need to be taken now in order to engage socially disadvantaged youths in the wider community?

Within the wider community, there’s a few things. We’re very strong about promoting place-based intervention because of what we know, for example, in terms of adult prisons, 6 percent of postcodes account for 50 percent of the prison population.

We would be saying, let’s look at the areas where there is this entrenched disadvantage. So they’re often the areas that fall worst on the early development index. They’re often the areas where more people miss their child internal health check-up at 8 months.

So it starts very early in life. And we’d like to see a more concerted effort at an earlier stage. Right through to some of those postcodes where there’s more child protection notifications, often more early school leaving and higher unemployment.

We think it needs a more holistic across government approach to deal with this at the root causes. And not only across government, but engaging the community, the community sector and strengthening those communities. And offer people hope and a sense that they have a future.

We’d like to see more effort at that very early end of the continuum. And then, we also think that we need to do more to support families, and different cultural groups, to stay connected with children and for the children and young people to have a strong and positive identity.

Rather than drifting off, because there’s a vacuum in terms of identity, of a peer group that is finding its identity through crime.

Ms Edwards thank you very much for taking the time out to speak with us today. And continued success with the great work your organisation is doing with Victorian youth.

No problem. Thanks very much Paul. All the best.

Last updated on

Receive all of our articles weekly


Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

Your Opinion Matters