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Working together to create cohesive communities

Supporting people from newly arrived communities to become positive, contributing members of society – rather than stigmatizing and further isolating them – is the best way to create the safe and cohesive communities we all want to live in, writes Jesuit Social Services Media Relations Manager KATHRYN KERNOHAN.

The links between disadvantage and Victoria’s youth justice system have long been well known – and were again brought into sharp focus this week with the publication of the Victorian Youth Parole Board’s 2016-17 Annual Report.

The report contains the results of an annual snapshot survey of young people involved with the youth justice system in September 2016, with the results revealing the multiple, complex forms of marginalization experienced by many young people who have contact with the system.

For example – a staggering 71 per cent of young people were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect; 65 per cent had a history of both drug and alcohol misuse; 56 per cent had previously been suspended or expelled from school and around a third had a parent or sibling in prison.

One of the statistics from the Annual Report that has garnered attention in the mainstream media is that more than 40 per cent of young people either detained or on parole come from three groups: Aboriginal young people, Maori and Pacific Islander young people and young people from East Africa.

Young people from Africa, particularly from the Sudan, comprise 12 per cent of the state’s total population of young people detained or on parole – yet it is this small percentage that has led to countless newspaper headlines about fears about ‘gang crime’ or ‘Apex’.

It is true that some of the young people in this group have committed serious offences, and need to be held accountable for their actions. However, instead of further stigmatizing minority groups, the public’s attention should be focused on the factors that lead to this relatively high over-representation and solutions to improve outcomes for marginalized young people.

Many of the young people we work with who come from newly arrived communities have faced significant trauma in their home countries – which can exacerbate issues such as mental illness. Further to this, many people we work with have had limited access to education prior to settling in Australia and there is no doubt this adds to the myriad challenges faced when engaging with a new community.

In our submission to the inquiry into migrant settlement outcomes, we highlighted a number of ways in which outcomes can be improved by ensuring people arriving in Australia have access to supports that address disadvantage, prevent exclusion and promote social cohesion.

This includes recommending that the Federal Government ensures programs and policies affecting newly arrived migrants recognize the significant impact that migration and pre-arrival experiences have on settlement outcomes, and a commitment to place-based initiatives that address social disadvantage.

The best way to tackle crime is to prevent it from occurring in the first place – and this can be achieved by providing stronger supports to newly arrived communities; supporting young people to link with family, culture and the broader communities; and offering pathways to education and employment.

However, when young people do offend, it is crucial that youth detention remains a last resort. Restorative justice approaches such as Youth Justice Group Conferencing, which holds young people accountable for their actions while allowing those impacted by their offending (such as victims, families and police) to express the impact it had on them, are proven to result in less re-offending compared to young people exiting detention.

A number of young people involved in the well-documented Moomba riots in 2016 went through a similar process – and none of them have since re-offended.

Supporting people from newly arrived communities to become positive, contributing members of society – rather than stigmatizing and further isolating them – is the best way to create the safe and cohesive communities we all want to live in.