Today, the NSW Attorney-General, the Hon. Greg Smith SC MP writes for Burnside on key issues in juvenile justice and highlights the importance of addressing the factors that lead to children and young people becoming involved with juvenile justice and the need for reform of the Bail Act.
The area of juvenile justice is one where input from the whole community is needed to make a genuine difference in young people’s lives. Good juvenile justice policies can mean the difference between a lifetime of crime and a fulfilling, productive life. These policies are strengthened when NGOs, such as UnitingCare Burnside, are involved in their development and in the delivery of services in the community to support young people and their families. UnitingCare Burnside celebrates its Centenary this year. It should be congratulated for achieving such a significant milestone and for all the wonderful work it does for children and young people.
On 26 March 2011 the people of New South Wales elected a Liberals and Nationals Government. I was appointed the Attorney General and Minister for Justice on 3 April 2011. As a former Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions and someone who has prosecuted hundreds of criminal trials, I understand the importance of early intervention to turn around the lives of young offenders. Hardened adult offenders often have had substantial interaction with the juvenile justice system. If these offenders had access to effective services when they first came into contact with the justice system, or even before, a number of subsequent offences may have been avoided.
We need to address the issues that lead to young people becoming involved with the justice system.
The latest Young People in Custody Health Survey shows us that young offenders have high levels of mental illness, intellectual disability, drug and alcohol abuse and poor physical health. Multiple areas of social disadvantage were also found, including a large proportion of young people with parents who had been incarcerated or were currently incarcerated, and a high proportion of young people who had been placed in care as a child. Most had disengaged from school and faced the prospect of long term unemployment. It is clear that most young people involved in the criminal justice system come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Early intervention policies are supported by research which indicates that intervening early with vulnerable young people provides long term social and financial benefits, including improved life outcomes for these individuals as well as their families and the broader community. Implementing a system of early intervention can prevent a moment of bad judgement turning into a lifetime of criminal activity. Juvenile Justice NSW is currently undertaking a critical assessment of current policies in relation to early offending and entrenched offending in children and young people and, where necessary, will make recommendations for reform.
Another significant issue that must be addressed is the number of young people on remand. The statistics in relation to this issue are concerning: 50-60% of young people in detention centres are held on remand, 85% of admissions to detention centres are remand admissions, and approximately 84% of young people remanded in custody do not receive custodial sentences. I have ordered the NSW Law Reform Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the Bail Act, amid concerns about the impact it has on juveniles. The review will examine, amongst other things, whether the Bail Act should make a distinction between young offenders and adults and if so, what special provisions should apply to young offenders.
There is no doubt that there is plenty of work to be done in the area of juvenile justice; however, better outcomes can be achieved with the assistance of organisations such as UnitingCare Burnside.
Changes in juvenile justice will require political will and public support. Join our advocacy community to support Burnside and our colleagues in the community sector on juvenile justice reform.