By Julie Edwards, CEO, Jesuit Social Services*
Diversion has been a defining feature of youth justice systems throughout Australia for several decades. While experience and evidence have shown us the positive impacts that diversion can have, there are still major challenges in maintaining support for this approach.
By way of some background, diversion is an approach to criminal justice policy that focuses on keeping young people out of the criminal justice system in the first place and, where this is unavoidable, minimising the extent of their involvement. Justification for diversion comes from evidence of the negative impact that serious and persistent involvement in the criminal justice system, particularly exposure to detention, can have on young people. Currently, diversion manifests itself in legislation and programs involving police, courts, government and the community sector such as cautioning, group conferencing, youth drug and alcohol courts, and therapeutic support programs.
Diversion has had a significant impact on the number of young people involved in the criminal justice system. The volume of criminal cases being heard by children’s courts declined throughout the 2000’s (AIC) and the national rate of young people held in detention has halved since the early 1980’s (AIC). It is important to note that, contrary to public perceptions, there has also been an overall decline in the rate of crime throughout Australia during this time.
Despite these impressive results, there is not consistent support for diversion and at times it feels as though this approach is directly under attack. Misperceptions of runaway youth crime, often not supported by evidence, can result in knee jerk reactions that undermine diversion. This is most clear in reforms currently being pursued by the Queensland government which have seen group conferencing abolished and will make it easier for young people to be sentenced to detention. Australian and international evidence and experience makes it clear that these approaches are not the best way to build safer communities.
Even where diversion has a general level of acceptance, it remains a challenge to turn rhetoric and good intentions into reality. Victoria has a strong commitment to diversion which is evident in the 75 per cent decline in the rate of young people in prison since 1981. At the same time the number of children who offend has also declined (13 per cent between 2001 and 2011).
However, there remain gaps in the availability of diversion in Victoria. Submissions to a major Victorian Government consultation process on youth diversion in 2012 revealed issues with access in regional areas, the lack of availability of afterhours services, the absence of a legislative framework, and inconsistency in practice across different criminal justice agencies.
An area of particular concern for Jesuit Social Services has been the failure of the system to effectively divert children and young people in the state’s child protection system from crossing over into the criminal justice system.
Our Thinking Outside research into the experiences of children on remand found that every single child who experienced remand between the ages of 10-12 in Victoria was known to child protection, more than half before their third birthday. The child protection/youth justice crossover issues is also supported by data from the Victorian Youth Parole Board showing 38 per cent of young people in custody had a previous child protection order.
One practice we have observed is young people living in state run out of home care placements being arrested and remanded over the weekend only to be released straight back to community and the same care placement setting at a court sitting on Monday. Instability in out of home care placement breakdown is something that has been linked to youth offending in other research projects (Cashmore 2011).
We believe that a comprehensive approach to diversion in Victoria must include efforts to address the issue of children crossing over. While preventing out of home care placement breakdown in the first place should be a primary focus, there are also existing diversion mechanisms which might be able to offer a solution. Recently, Jesuit Social Services group conferencing practitioners have been using restorative justice processes in working with young people living in out of home care who find themselves at risk of youth justice system involvement. While it is in its early days, this approach may provide one way to resolve some of the issues that are leading to justice system involvement and strengthen our approach to diversion.
* Jesuit Social Services representatives Michael Livingstone, Research, Policy and Media Officer, and Daniel Clements, General Manager Brosnan Services will be presenting at the 2014 National Juvenile Justice Summit, to be held on the 25-26 March in Melbourne. The title of their presentation is Realising the Potential of Restorative Justice – Exploring New Uses for Group Conferencing. To view the full speaker line-up and to register for the event, please visit the National Juvenile Justice Summit website.
 Although it should be noted there are limitations in relying on official crime rates, and changes within including increase in raw numbers of reported assaults and sexual assaults.