While Victoria does not have a legislated youth diversion program, the Children’s Court and Victorian Police have implemented various therapeutic diversionary programs aimed at encouraging young people to reflect on and cease their offending. These initiatives have arisen in a climate where the rates of youth offending are falling in most categories of offences and where there is a growing awareness among the community of the link between disadvantage and criminality in young people.
Statistics on young offenders
Between 2012 and 2016, the number of young people coming before the courts for criminal matters in Victoria fell. The rate of violent crimes committed against individuals remained steady whilst property related offending decreased. Very serious offending rates remained stable during this time. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the youth offender rate in 2016 – 2017 was 2,330 offenders per 100,000 persons while the offender rate for the general offender population was 1,949 offenders per 100,000 persons. These figures indicate that the rate of crime is higher among youth than among adults.
However, during the period from 2008 to 2017, the number of offences committed by young people declined across most offence categories. Two notable exceptions to this trend were illicit drug offences (which increased by 47%) and sexual assault and related offences (which increased by 35%).
Characteristics of youth offenders
According to a recent study by Jesuit Social Services, the characteristics of young people who offend commonly include a combination of poverty, disadvantage, involvement with Child Protection, poor school attendance, poor mental health and disability. Aboriginal Australians are over-represented among young offenders.
A 2016 report by the Youth Parole Board of Victoria found of all children in detention, 45% had been the subject of a child protection order, 19% were the subject of a current child protection order and 63% had been victims of abuse, trauma or neglect.
Co-offending among Victorian offenders
A 2017 Crime Statistic Agency study found that in 2007, 62.6% of young offenders were recorded as offending in company with at least one other person. By 2016, this number had decreased by 56.1%.
It remains the case that almost all young co-offenders (70.7%) offend in the presence of other young people. Young co-offenders are likely to be male, 10 – 12 years old and reside within the lowest 30% of disadvantaged postcodes. Robbery is the crime most commonly committed by youths in company with others, accounting for 61.3% of crime committed by these groups.
Responses from the Children’s Court
It is often argued that a ‘tough on crime’ approach and programs of strict discipline, such as boot camps, actually increase the rates of offending. Academic studies suggest that therapeutic methods, such as restorative justice, counselling and skill-building, can reduce recidivism by 20 to 25 percent.
Between 2008 and 2009, 1.2% of young Victorians aged 10 to 17 were found guilty of one or more offences. 75% of these offenders received undertakings, bonds or fines, 22% received some form of a supervisory order (probation, etc.) and 3% received detention orders. Victoria, which has the lowest youth detention rate in the country, also has the lowest rate of youth offending of any Australian State or Territory except for the ACT.
From 2008 to 2011, 27% of juvenile offences in Victoria were processed by way of a formal caution administered by a senior police officer in the presence of a parent or guardian.
In 2004, the Koori Children’s Court was established as part of a comprehensive response to the over- representation of Indigenous children in the criminal justice system. The Koori Children’s Court is modelled on the adult Koori Court and allows participation by Aboriginal elders or respected persons to achieve culturally appropriate sentencing outcomes for Indigenous youth.
Victoria is the only Australian State which does not have a legislated court-based diversion program to address offending by children and young people. However, the Victorian judicial system operates with reference to the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities which recommends that any criminal procedure involving a child take into account the child’s age and the ‘desirability of promoting the child’s rehabilitation.
The Children’s Court has initiated informal diversion programs such as ROPES, Right Step and Youth Justice Group Conferencing (YJGC) for youths in the form of joint ventures between the Victoria Police, the Children’s Court of Victoria and municipal youth workers.
The ROPES program is a youth diversion program premised around turning negative contacts between youth and police or the courts into positive ones. The program brings together youth offenders and the police informant in a day for a series of physical challenges such as a high ropes course and rock climbing, interspersed with education sessions about criminal records and antisocial behaviour. The program requires trust and cooperation between police and young people in an attempt to break down barriers and see each other’s perspectives.
Right Step is a form of youth diversion available to children who are before the Moorabbin Children’s Court upon police referral with the consent of the victim and an admission to the offending. When a young person is approved for the program, the matter is adjourned for 8 weeks to allow the youth to be partnered with a case manager to design an individual plan to address their offending behaviour and contributing environmental factors. Upon successful completion of the program, the charge is dismissed without the youth receiving a criminal record.
Youth Justice Group Conferencing
The Youth Justice Group Conferencing program is overseen by the Department of Human Services to allow the offender and victim to come together and have a dialogue about the offending and come up with solutions. Young first offenders who are facing a possible supervised order are often referred to YJGC by the court to be diverted into a more intensive supervised program, while still being held accountable for their offending.
The successful completion of YJGC may still be followed by a reprimand and a conviction. The young offender is expected to complete an outcome plan involving making a commitment to improve their lives and set goals and objectives. The young offender undertakes to account for their offending with a letter of apology or a monetary payment to the victim as compensation.
Unfortunately, in the absence of a legislative framework for youth diversion, the availability and access to youth diversion programs remains inconsistent and largely dependent on where an offender is located. Further, youth diversion programs are created by community organisations, police and local courts and are dependent on individual initiatives and resources. Most of these programs receive minimal and infrequent funding. However, the existence and utilisation of such programs reflects the Children’s Court’s acknowledgment that the rehabilitative approach of youth diversion programs is appropriate for many young offenders.
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