By KIERAN FINNANE
‘Tamara’ is back in court. Last time was in early March on the day of her 15th birthday. Her charges then were serious (she was convicted and sentenced) and they are again now. She has been remanded in custody.
In the courthouse lobby seasoned youth sector professional Antoinette Carroll* sits down for a rare five-minute breather. A lawyer colleague, who knows her workload, thrusts a coffee into her hands.
“Recidivist youths are simply not getting bail,” Ms Carroll says bluntly, impatient with the populist debate around youth offending and the distraction of the Chief Minister’s intention to remove the presumption of bail for young recidivists.
“And many of them are quite happy on remand, that’s where their friends are, and their families can see it as a solution for them too.”
Yet the youth sector knows that it is no solution, in the long term. Their own experience and the research data clearly show that early contact with the justice system breeds more contact with the justice system.
Of the youth offenders who do get bail, the sector is also all too aware, says Ms Carroll, that they are often being sent back into a living environment where there is no appropriate adult supervision: “You need a structured environment to be able to abide by a court order.”
Tamara is a case in point. For her previous convictions she had served time on remand; the balance of her sentence was suspended with an “operational period” of 12 months. With this new alleged offending, if found guilty, she will have breached the conditions of that suspension.
Her sentence in March put strong emphasis on her reintegration back into the community. I wrote then: “But the challenge ahead is considerable, given that she has essentially been returned to the same life circumstances that she had before, with the exception of the service support that her offending has brought about.”
That service support has clearly not been enough, and nor has the care of her family. Her aunty, who raised her, is in court again to support her today, as are a number of other adult relatives. As she is taken back to the cells they whisper messages to her, reach out their hands.
“To create a safer community we need intensive long-term case management,” says Ms Carroll.
This would involve working with the young person and their family, promoting all the ways in which they are positively connected – the emotional and cultural bonds, as are clearly on display between Tamara and her family – but giving the young person the support they need to walk away (to safety, not the street) when the grog begins to flow, and the violence erupts.
Ms Carroll knows this kind of approach works. She saw it in action in Redfern, Sydney before she came to Alice Springs some 16 years ago. It is also seen as “best practice” in the research, she says, citing as one example the ACT’s Blueprint for Youth Justice, where the focus is on early intervention, prevention and diversion**.
This is a 10-year plan, 2012-2022, with $5.5m allocated for its implementation over the first four years. In the 2015 annual report Minister for Children and Young People, Dr Chris Bourke, says the ACT has achieved “significant reductions in the levels of youth offending and the number of young people in contact with, or becoming further involved in the youth justice system”. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15 youth apprehensions by police fell by 37%.
The NT, by contrast, has the second-highest youth offending rate in the country (and rising, in contrast to all other jurisdictions with the exception of NSW). And it has the highest youth incarceration rate.
In Alice Springs, even without a policy overhaul setting new directions, Ms Carroll says services are massively under-resourced for the task at hand. And it can’t possibly be a question of cost. $5m has been ploughed into refurbishing the Alice Springs Youth Centre, for example, yet there is no provision of meaningful supervised after-hours activities (unless you’ve got the money to pay for them). Such a service, which is also being lobbied for by the Town Council, would be a starting point.
“All the money goes into capital works but those facilities don’t offer the services we need.”
She rejects a mandatory ‘protective custody’ model as “punitive”. It won’t build the relationships with young people and their families that can make the kind of difference seen in the ACT, which does not take this approach (see measures below).
Ms Carroll does not under-estimate the gravity of the offending that has the public so worried and often angry.
“There is a new street kid of a kind we haven’t seen before, willing to take far greater risks and causing mayhem.
“We are at a crisis point, like we were back in 2003 when there was a peak in volatile substance abuse [sniffing inhalants], but the causes are not the same.
“This is the second generation. We were dealing with their parents back then.
“With our fast-growing youth population, this is a ticking time bomb. I’m very worried about the long-term future of this town if we don’t get some good policy in place.”
Ms Carroll says youth sector professionals have identified some 30 high-risk families in town, in whom – if for no other reason that everyone else’s safety – the community needs to invest.
“This involves much more than a few parenting programs. This is a 25-year commitment, just like we make to young people in our own families.”
She says services have to start working with the pre-school age group and really drill down in each family, to establish who really are the people most able to take care of the child: on any day if a primary carer isn’t present for whatever reason, who then steps up to take responsibility.
The up front cost of this kind of intensive work will be significant but the cost of doing nothing will be much greater.
Illustration above by ANGELA GEE.
* Antoinette Carroll is the chairperspon for Central Australian Youth Justice (CAYJ), a advocacy body with representatives from a range of organisations working with young people in the criminal justice system. She is employed by Aboriginal Legal Aid (CAALAS) as their Youth Justice Advocacy Project Coordinator.
** Early intervention, prevention and diversion measures in the ACT’s Blueprint for Youth Justice:
- youth engagement services (accessed by 4550 young people in 2014-15, representing 5% of the ACT’s 0-17 year age group).
- restorative justice: group conferencing involving the offender and victim.
- health assessment for young people entering the justice system.
- coordinated case management, in detention and in the community.
- domestic violence crisis support.
- support for post-detention reintegration into the community.
- support to gain education qualifications while in detention.
- housing and homelessness services.
- support to transition from out-of-home care.