Jesuit Social Services’ recently released Victorian State Election platform, A state of opportunity, builds on 45 years of advocacy and action, to outline our vision for a just society across a range of interconnected social policy areas, from a fairer justice system, to support for people experiencing multiple and complex needs such as mental illness, trauma and bereavement, and preventing violence.
In this third in a series of pre-Election blogs, we focus on Victoria’s youth justice system and the need to reduce harm arising from the use of youth detention, informed by our #JusticeSolutions tours of effective youth justice systems abroad.
Jesuit Social Services has supported children and young people who have contact with the youth justice system for the last 45 years.
Through our decades of work with vulnerable children and young people, we witness the impact that contact with detention has on a young person’s ability to reach their potential every day.
That’s why we have a vision for a justice system that meets the needs of the entire community – including people who have contact with the system, staff, victims of crime, families and the broader community.
We believe that a critical part of this vision is intervening early and diverting children from detention to prevent trajectories to the adult justice system. A commitment to ensuring detention is only ever used as a last resort is vital.
For the extremely small number of young people for whom detention may be necessary, the system must emphasise education, rehabilitation and ensuring young people exit better off than when they entered.
#JusticeSolutions tours demonstrate what is possible
In 2017 and 2019, leaders from Jesuit Social Services embarked on two #JusticeSolutions tours of parts of Europe, the US and New Zealand to explore effective youth justice systems and understand what may be possible in transforming Victoria’s system.
In all of the jurisdictions we visited, we saw that justice system reform is underpinned by a clear, well-articulated vision, centred on addressing the needs of people and their families.
We observed the importance of experienced and well-resourced staff in helping to build relationships with young people which facilitate positive pathways and reduce the chances of re-offending. For example, in Norway, prison officers require a minimum of two years of paid study. In Norway’s youth detention facilities, half of the staff are social workers. This focus has supported the country to have extremely low incarceration and recidivism rates in comparison to Australia
Fundamentally, we found that the most effective systems are the ones where young people are supported to address their individual and often complex needs. A safe youth detention system that focuses on setting children and young people up for success when they return to the community means safer workplaces, less crime and more cohesive communities.
New Cherry Creek facility must focus on supporting young people to successfully reintegrate into the community
The Victorian Government is soon to open its new Cherry Creek detention facility – the third youth detention facility in the state.
Since plans for the new facility were announced in 2017, Jesuit Social Services has consistently advocated against it. We believe it is unnecessary to build a detention facility when funds would be far better directed to intervene early and work intensively with at-risk children to prevent crime from occurring in the first place.
Having said that, we welcomed the Victorian Government’s 2022-2023 Budget announcement to reduce the capacity of the new facility from more than 200 beds to 56 beds.
Our #JusticeSolutions tours demonstrated that the most effective youth detention facilities around the world are designed as small, home-like centres, close to family and community, and share an overarching emphasis on education, independent living skills and the re-socialisation of young people.
We call on the new Victorian Government to ensure the Cherry Creek youth justice facility is a place of small, homelike units designed to support successful integration back into the community.
Additionally, staff in youth detention facilities play a crucial role in helping young people to turn their lives around. We support the introduction of a minimum workforce qualification for all custodial youth justice staff to reflect the challenges of the role and the impact appropriate staffing can have on rehabilitation and community safety.
Legislative reform should include commitment to raise the age of criminal responsibility
The incoming Victorian Government must also commit to a series of important legislative reforms to better support children and young people who have contact with the youth justice system – and give them every opportunity to get their lives back on track.
This includes a commitment to raise the age of criminal responsibility from the current 10 years to 14, in recognition of the fact that children detained between the ages of 10 and 14 are more likely, compared to those at older ages, to have sustained and frequent contact with the criminal justice system throughout their life.
We also call on the incoming Victorian Government to reduce remand numbers for children and young people, reintroduce sentencing options such as home detention and suspended sentences, and reverse legislative erosions to the dual track system, one of the foundations of Victoria’s youth justice system.
Jesuit Social Services’ recommendations: