The facts are these: if you’re poor, live in regional Victoria or happen to be Aboriginal, then you’re much more likely to end up in the youth justice system than your richer, whiter or city-dwelling friends.
This isn’t a statement of class warfare, racism or division—it’s a hard truth based on raw data.
Last week, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released new snapshots of Victoria’s youth justice system. It gives us a small glimpse into the lives of 1,084 children and young people: kids locked in prisons, under community supervision, awaiting sentence and those who have already been through the court system.
The analysis clumps kids by their ‘socioeconomic position’, based on their last known postcode. Five broad groups are created, crudely ranging from those from very well-off areas to those from suburbs with known disadvantage. (Kids whose last home address was unknown were not included.)
The results are stark. Two thirds of those in Victoria’s youth justice system are from the two most disadvantaged categories.
The data also looked at where people come from, broken down by geographic region: city kids, those from regional areas and those from remote zones.
Again, the data paints an alarming picture. The further you live from the city (with its relatively superior array of services and opportunities) the more likely you are to end up in the youth justice system.
Race is also a factor. The AIHW analysis reveals that despite Aboriginal young people comprising only 2 per cent of the state’s youth population they make up a whopping 18 per cent of those in the youth justice system.
In the Institute’s own words, “this means that an Indigenous young person in Victoria aged 10–17 was 13 times as likely as a non-Indigenous young person to be under youth justice supervision.”
So how to explain these figures?
The truth is kids facing disadvantage are more likely to commit crimes, but it’s not because of who they are as individuals.
Being from the country doesn’t make you innately more criminal. Growing up with a certain postcode doesn’t, of itself, magically introduce you to crime. And being Aboriginal alone doesn’t make you more likely to run afoul of the law.
But kids growing up in poverty and disadvantage do often lack the services and support structures that would help them lead a healthy, positive and crime-free life.
The problem isn’t the individual kids, it’s the world we structure around them.
Once we accept this, it then follows that if we’re serious about reducing crime, protecting our children and making Victoria safer for everybody, we need to make bold investments in services and create opportunities for young people.
We need to ensure that every child has a home that is both safe and welcoming and that our schools are engaging and accessible.
We need to recognise and address the lack of belonging that many kids feel and champion new ways of helping them if they’re falling off the rails.
That’s the kind of society I want—not one that sends children to prison for problems they didn’t cause and don’t have the power to fix.
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