Youth Crime: Incarceration is Not the Answer

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Young offender

A fight broke out between two groups at Melbourne’s inner city Birrarung Marr park on March 12 this year. The altercation sparked the Moomba riots that erupted across the city’s CBD that night.

Two more brawls took place between groups of youths on the CBD streets during the night. These fights were between a group from Dandenong and another from the Western suburbs, who were allegedly “settling a score.”

Eyewitnesses were terrified as rioters rampaged up Swanston Street and around Flinders Street Station taunting the police.

Thirty four people – mainly youths – were subsequently arrested and charged over the riot, including ten with suspected links to the Apex gang.

In late May, twenty five youths appeared at a special Children’s court hearing. The magistrate reportedly indicated that many of those charged would be punished with diversionary programs and cautions.

Youth crime soars, but only for certain offences

The riot is seen as a flashpoint of a supposed youth crime wave that is currently sweeping Victoria.

Over the past year, the rate of aggravated burglaries committed by teenagers has tripled. Figures from Victoria police suggest that 542 offences have been committed over the past year, compared with 187 in the previous twelve months.

An aggravated burglary takes place when the victim is at home or the offender carries a weapon.

Teen car thefts are up too. Over the last financial year, 1,872 vehicles have been stolen, compared with 1,269 in 2011-12.

However, the rate of robberies carried out by teenagers has remained stable for five years and the rate of burglaries committed when the victim is not at home continues to decline.

According to Victorian acting assistant commissioner Sue Clifford, there’s been an overall decrease in the number of young people committing crimes. The youth crime crisis is attributable to a small group of serial offenders.

Avoiding prison time

In recent weeks, three young reoffenders have managed to avoid prison time. All three have a list of prior convictions. One was sentenced to a supervision order, the other two were granted bail. And two of the young men had previously been charged over the Moomba riot.

This has led to cries that authorities are being soft on crime. Presumably, tougher sentencing and more prison time is the answer. But is it?

The Apex gang

One of the teenaged offenders, a 17-year-old, is said to be a member of the Apex gang. The group’s name is often cited in reports of recent crimes that have occurred in the Melbourne metropolitan area.

Founded in the suburb of Dandenong two years ago, Apex is a street gang with no insignia and no real structure. The group has been linked to multiple car-jackings and aggravated burglaries.

Apex is said to have originally consisted of a small group of young Sudanese men, but its members have grown to include youths with Caucasian, Pacific Islander and Indian backgrounds, amongst others.

But interestingly, what led to the gang’s expansion – besides communicating over Facebook – is the stints members have served in the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre: a correctional facility in the suburb of Parkville. It seems that incarceration has brought them together, rather than acting as a deterrence.

Riots at Parkville

The Parkville juvenile detention centre has been the scene of two recent riots. Last Saturday night, rioting inmates caused $2 million worth of damage, as they trashed the facility, destroying security cameras and ripping apart ceilings and walls.

The chaos broke out just days after another riot occurred at the beleaguered facility that holds convicted youths as well as those on remand. And back in March this year, six inmates armed with poles took to the roof of the centre in a seven-hour standoff.

The incidents have led some to question whether serving time in juvenile centres is really the answer to stopping troubled youths from reoffending.

Holding youths in adult prisons

Victorian authorities announced they’ve taken legal steps to relocate 40 of the young offenders involved in the rioting to an adult facility. The youths will be housed in a separate unit at the maximum-security Barwon Prison.

The Youth Parole Board has knocked back the state government’s attempts to move seven of the boys to the adult facility permanently.

As the government’s plans remain unclear, human rights advocates have questioned whether authorities are breaching human rights obligations under both international and domestic laws. Victoria’s Human Rights Charter requires the segregation from adults of accused youths and those detained without a charge.

A 2013 Victorian ombudsman report into children transferred from the youth justice system to the adult prison system found there “are no circumstances that justify the placement of a child in the adult prison system.”

Overcrowded system promotes reoffending

The events coincide with concerns about overcrowding in the Victorian prison system. A recent report found that a major reason for the Ravenhall prison riot in Melbourne last year was overcrowding in the remand centre.

Nearly a quarter of the state’s prison population is on remand, a Victorian Ombudsman report found. And recidivism rates are high, with 44 percent of inmates returning to prison within two years. It’s even higher for those aged between 18 and 25, more than half of whom return within 24 months.

A Victorian Department of Humans Services study found in the late nineties that first-time youth offenders sentenced to probation or more severe sanctions reoffended 41 percent of the time, and 60 percent of those with prior convictions did so.

The Australian criminal justice system is handing down harsher sentences and incarcerating more people. But a system that’s producing “revolving door” criminals can’t be the answer, especially for teenagers.

A different approach

Experts argue that the government needs to provide greater funding for programs that deal with social disadvantage and provide encouragement to those isolated from the rest of community. A quarter of Victoria’s adult prisoners come from just 2 percent of the state’s postcodes and half are from 6 percent.

The European model of restorative justice for juveniles emphasises reintegration over retribution, focusing on the underlying causes of offending. Young people that participate in community-based processes – such as mediation and conflict resolution – have lower recidivism rates.

Many believe it’s high time Australia engages in a more healing approach towards youth offending – a model that involves restorative justice. Rather than locking disengaged youth together in correctional facilities to suffer further social isolation, there needs to be greater emphasis on addressing the underlying social disadvantage that causes young people to go off the rails.

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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.

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