The past week has seen a resurgence of calls to get tough on children and young people who break the law. Prompted by new bail laws for under eighteen year olds that took effect on Monday, we have heard dire warnings: we are going ‘soft’ on young offenders; we’re in the midst of a ‘youth crime wave’; community safety will suffer.
There have even been calls to step back in time and start dealing with sixteen and seventeen year olds under the adult criminal justice system.
As is often the case when we talk about tackling youth offending, the facts have been largely absent from the discussion.
The fact is that while Victoria Police are currently working on several types of crime minors are getting more involved in such as vehicle theft, the rate of alleged offending by children has actually dropped over the past four years.
Meanwhile number of children remanded in custody has climbed significantly in just two years. Whereas once the vast majority of children in custody were detained because they had been convicted and sentenced, this group now represents around 25% of minors in youth detention on any given day. That means three-quarters of the children we are locking up have not been convicted of a crime. And many do not end up receiving a term of detention.
The fact is that anyone who thinks youth detention is a soft option or stops reoffending is kidding themselves.
The changes to the Bail Act 1977 – which were passed late in 2015 – are intended to address this, to make sure only children who pose a serious risk are remanded and that – in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child – remanding a child is the last resort.
The reforms mean a child’s failure to comply with a bail condition will no longer be an offence in itself, thus winding back 2013 changes that have had a disproportionate impact on children.
Contrary to scaremongering we have heard this week, this does not mean there will be no consequences for breach of bail. The fact is minors who breach bail can still be arrested and brought back to court to have their bail revoked. If they commit another offence on bail they also face prosecution. These changes will not affect the courts’ ability to remand high risk minors charged with serious offending.
The fact is that making it a separate crime for a 16 year old to break curfew is not sensible. It won’t stop that child from reoffending. It will fill our youth detention facilities with unsentenced kids, many of whom do not need to be there.
Under the changes, courts deciding whether to grant bail to a child must also take into account a range of factors – such as the need to preserve the relationship between the child and her or his family.
Of course, disrupting family relationships, living arrangements or education all make a young person more likely to disengage from positive influences and to continue or escalate their offending.
The fact is that remanding a child makes that child more likely to reoffend, not less.
And who are we locking up? Two-thirds of the kids we lock up are themselves victims of serious physical abuse, sexual abuse, family violence or neglect in the home. One-third have mental health issues. One fifth have impaired intellectual functioning. We are 12 times more likely to lock up Koori kids than non-Koori kids. There are concerns that some children are being denied bail simply because they do not have a stable or safe home to go to.
The fact is that while we allow scaremongers to demonise young ‘thugs’, we stay silent about the social harms and entrenched disadvantage that help lead children down the path to crime.
As for the suggestion that sixteen and seventeen year olds are adults, this again ignores the facts. Such a move would not only take Victoria out of step with the rest of Australia, most developed countries and all relevant international conventions, it would ignore what we know about the adolescent brain. The adolescent brain is still developing at sixteen and seventeen, particularly areas of the brain associated with regulation of emotion, assessment of risk and impulse control. This means minors need a different approach to bring about the best chance of rehabilitation.
The fact is that dealing with sixteen year olds in the adult courts and sending them into the adult prison system would not only be inappropriate, it would entrench their offending and lead to more future crime.
Calls to get tough on young offenders and maintain bail laws that fill youth justice centres with unsentenced kids may run well as headlines. But they simply guide minors further into the criminal justice system and a potential lifetime of offending. When we ignore the facts, we risk our status as a society that values its young. Ultimately we also risk community safety.
Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People