Monday, May 7, 2012

Prevention the only hope for young offenders, because cure is failing

Gino Vumbaca | SMH | May 02, 2012

In the aftermath of the Kings Cross police shooting of Aboriginal teenagers driving a stolen vehicle, the Herald has published an investigation into juvenile justice and how we deal with children that get into serious trouble.

It's sometimes too easy to look for someone to blame for youth crime - be it parents, government departments or others. What is harder to find are effective solutions, especially when they challenge the prevailing political and media orthodoxy.

Tonight, however, in what may be the start of some long overdue reform in NSW, the Governor, Marie Bashir, will launch a campaign to reduce the staggeringly high rate of young indigenous people in detention centres. It is led by the Aboriginal Legal Service and includes Michael Kirby, Mick Dodson, Bob Debus, Adam Goodes, Mick Gooda, Marcia Ella Duncan, Naomi Mayers, Nick Cowdery and other prominent Australians who want to make ''justice reinvestment'' the new norm.

If the current trajectory continues we are in real danger of losing a generation of young indigenous people. In NSW, they make up more than half of the detention population yet just 2.2 per cent of the general population. An Aboriginal youth facing the court system is 28 times more likely to be placed in juvenile detention than their non-indigenous counterparts. This is a shameful indictment of our current approach, which routinely consigns young Aboriginal people to detention. It cries out for a new approach that includes early intervention, prevention and diversion with incarceration as a last resort only - in short, what is becoming known around the world as ''justice reinvestment''.

Justice reinvestment is not about spending more of our taxes; it is about redirecting the current ineffective investments we are making in the justice system into areas and programs that can provide better, safer and healthier communities. It also reduces the extraordinary costs each time we put a juvenile in a detention centre or an adult in prison.

In NSW, the Auditor-General has revealed that the average annual cost of supervising and caring for juvenile offenders last year was $237,980 a person - a quarter of a million dollars a year for each young person locked up, and what do we get in return? The Australian Institute of Criminology has estimated that more than 30 per cent of adult prisoners were actually first incarcerated within the juvenile detention system. Given there are about 30,000 adult prisoners in the country and fewer than 1,000 juveniles in detention in any given year, that is a lot of juveniles going from detention to adult prison. It is also a system in which just under 60 per cent of NSW prisoners have previously served a sentence. In effect, our juvenile detention centres have become the learning centres for a cycle of offending and imprisonment.

The choices facing NSW today as the jurisdiction with the largest prison and juvenile detainee population are quite stark. We can continue on what is called the tough-on-crime path and replicate what is now known as the American disease. The US is home to 5 per cent of the world's people and 25 per cent of the world's prisoners. The prominent New York-based public health physician Ernie Drucker's recent book describes in epidemiological terms how this prisons ''plague'' has led to more than 2 million people being incarcerated, 800,000 on parole, and more than 4 million on probation. The ancillary effect of this type of justice means millions of children and family members of those incarcerated also come into regular and potentially damaging contact with the justice system.

The US, Russia and China lead the world in imprisonment. They show us the inevitable outcome of such tough policies. Enormous resources are being sucked out of other budget priorities, such as education and health, and they have high re-offending rates as people are churned through a brutal penal system and returned to the community.

NSW has not reached this point but finds itself on a similar path. I am not sure when developing policy based on evidence became synonymous with being soft rather than smart, but I think we should ask the next journalist, commentator or politician who portrays options other than prison as being ''soft'' what their view would be if their family member were facing incarceration. I would bet London to the proverbial brick they would stop at nothing to have them spared. This is because deep down they know, as does anyone who works or has been in prison, that it is an intimidating and violent system, and the last place where we can expect rehabilitation.

In contrast, justice reinvestment is about prevention rather than cure - about creating alternative pathways for young people who may otherwise be destined to lifelong offending, drug and alcohol misuse and suicide. When young people offend, there are likely to be other issues at play that are contributing. Justice reinvestment is our best option to target these causes and factors.

A think tank called Australia 21 recently called for a rethink on drug policy based on a review of the evidence and current approaches. One can only wonder how we can keep ignoring the evidence of our law and order policies. Just as a war on drugs can descend into a war against its citizens, a tough on crime approach can degenerate into a war against its most disadvantaged.

Gino Vumbaca is the executive director of the Australian National Council on Drugs and a member of the Campaign Committee.

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