A commitment to address the root causes of youth offending must be present in any conversation about how to tackle youth crime, says Jesuit Social Services.
“Youth crime in the Northern Territory has been in the national spotlight since Four Corners exposed the cruel and inhumane treatment of children and young people in Don Dale last year,” says Jesuit Social Services General Manager Northern Territory Jared Sharp.
Mr Sharp says concern about community safety in Darwin has escalated in the past week with news of a number of young people being arrested in relation to violence and vandalism at venues including Wulagi Primary School.
“The public has every right to be concerned about community safety, as we all want to live in safer communities. But we cannot allow fear and concern to overshadow the bigger picture – which is that youth crime rates across Australia are actually decreasing and there is no ‘youth crime epidemic’ as some would suggest,” says Mr Sharp.
Mr Sharp says that the Northern Territory sends more children to youth detention than anywhere else in Australia, at a rate of four times the national average.
“In any conversations about youth crime, we must remember that we are talking about children, and our response needs to be geared to stopping their future involvement in the justice system. Sometimes kids do need to be locked up as a last resort, but we can’t lose sight of our main goal – encouraging children to take responsibility for their actions, to see the impact and harm they have caused on victims of crime and to be successful, law-abiding citizens,” says Mr Sharp.
Jesuit Social Services recently made a submission to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory which included a range of recommendations to help prevent vulnerable young people from being detained in the first place, and safeguard against inappropriate treatment in youth detention facilities.
One recommendation is the use of problem-solving approaches such as restorative justice. Jesuit Social Services will this year launch Youth Justice Group Conferencing in Darwin. The program, which has operated in Victoria since 2003, helps not only young offenders but also victims of crime.
An independent evaluation found that 80 per cent of participants that successfully completed a Group Conference had not re-offended two years later.
“Group conferencing is a way of allowing young people who have committed offences to come face-to-face with those who have been impacted by their actions – including their victim, family and police,” says Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards.
“Far from being a ‘soft’ option, Group Conferencing makes young people take responsibility and be accountable for their actions. Our work in Victoria has shown that Group Conferencing is an effective way of diverting young people away from further contact with the justice system and supporting them to connect with family, school and the community.”
Mr Sharp says many young people involved with the Territory’s youth justice system are victims of abuse, violence and trauma, and most have disengaged with education.
“If we support these young people, we can set them on pathways to becoming productive members of society and work towards the safer communities we all want to live in.”
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