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Youth diversion: What Victoria needs

 

Smart Justice for Young People launched a youth diversion video in April to highlight the value and importance of diversion for young people in the justice system. The following is an edited excerpt of a speech by Kate Colvin, Policy Manager at Jesuit Social Services, at the launch, which highlights issues facing vulnerable young people in the justice system that are important to consider in the lead-up to the November State Election.

Victoria has an incredibly strong youth justice system. The latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report on youth justice revealed significant drops in the rate of young people aged 10-17 under state supervision in Victoria: from 19.4 per 10,000 in 2010-11 to 16.1 per 10,000 in 2012-13. There was also a fall in the rate of young people in detention: from 1.4 to 1.2 per 10,000. These figures reflect far lower rates of youth supervision and detention than other Australian jurisdictions. The national average for supervision (discounting the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where supervision and incarceration rates are relatively high) is 23.8 per 10,000, compared to Victoria’s 16.1 per 10,000.

This is a testament to the bipartisan support that exists for taking a sensible approach to young people who commit crimes. For over a decade the focus in Victoria has been on supporting young people to address the issues that drive their offending: whether that’s drug and alcohol issues, mental illness or very troubled family lives.

Smart Justice for Young PeopleVictoria also has a range of programs that provide diversion opportunities at three levels: before a young person even gets to court; in court, but before a plea is entered; and after a young person has pleaded guilty.

  1. Pre-court diversion is when the police deliver a caution or refer a young person to support programs, such as the Youth Support Service.
  2. Pre-plea diversion is for young people appearing in court for lower order offences and involves diversion to a ROPES program or Right Step, if these are available. Like a caution or Youth Support Service referral this results in no criminal record.
  3. Thirdly we have diversion for young people at risk of getting placed on supervision or in detention – that means they may have appeared in the court on a few previous occasions or been charged with a more serious offence. At this point if they plead guilty, the Magistrate can refer them to Youth Justice Group Conferencing, or to a formal deferral of sentence.

 

Unfortunately, the Victorian diversion system does have some serious gaps – in where programs are available, in how discretion limits equity of access to programs that do exist, and in the sustainability of program funding.

Despite delivering excellent results, diversion programs are not actually available to all young people. In practice, our system is manifestly unfair, and in general its rural and regional young people that draw the short straw. The ROPES program is available throughout Melbourne and in a couple of regional locations, including Geelong. But there is no ROPES program in Ararat, Bacchus Marsh, Colac, Hamilton, Horsham, Mildura, Portland, Robinvale, Stawell, Warrnambool, Bairnsdale, Benalla, Mansfield, Morwell, Shepparton, Wangaratta, Wodonga, Sale or Wonthaggi, and some other smaller places too.

The Youth Support Service is in some regional cities, including Mildura, Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong, Morwell and Shepparton, but it isn’t in any rural courts; and young people appearing in regional courts including Bairnsdale, Horsham, Sale and Wodonga, among others, miss out.

Likewise there is not statewide access to the Intensive Bail Support program, or to the Central After Hours Assessment and Bail Placement Service.

These gaps in access to diversion sit alongside a set of other inequities that are likely to contribute to higher rates of youth offending in rural and regional areas, and in disadvantaged metropolitan locations. These communities also have lower incomes, poorer educational outcomes, and fewer job opportunities; all of which are known to drive higher rates of youth offending. It’s paradoxical that in many places where we have most need, we have fewer options available to young people.

Alongside this inequity in availability of diversion programs we also have inequity in access to many of the programs available because there is no legislation to underpin discretion exercised by the police or magistrates. And for young people in the system this can create inequities and lost opportunities.

Introducing pre-plea diversion into the Children’s Court would create more consistency around when diversion should be considered as an option, and a framework for what should be taken into account.

For all that we have some excellent and successful programs, new funding is needed to make diversion available statewide. The recent state budget refunded the Youth Support Service, but without expanding the areas in which it is available. The budget also cut staffing resources to Youth Justice, potentially reducing their capacity to provide intensive support to young people in need of supervision and support. Meanwhile, Victoria Police have been downscaling ROPES in many locations.

We know these programs work, and that they reduce costs of incarceration, of ongoing offending and of supervision, but only some young people get the chance.

Legislatively this is one area where the youth justice system isn’t even keeping up with the adult system. Since 2009 adults have had pre-plea diversion enshrined in legislation, and consequently there is consistency of access to the opportunity to avoid a criminal record for mostly first time offenders. It’s counter-intuitive that there is no parallel provision in the Children and Young Persons Act.

It’s critical that parties contesting the upcoming Victorian election commit to policies to introduce legislation into Parliament to enshrine the right to diversion for young people.

They must also commit to funding diversion programs properly and making them available across Victoria, from Ouyen to Frankston, and Omeo to Broadmeadows.

Every young person needs to be given fair access to the opportunities they need to stay out of the criminal justice system and get on in life.