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Social Policy

Prevention not punishment: Helping young offenders getting their life back on track

3 Feb 2014, by Informa Insights

Trevor Summers is the program manager South West Youth Services (SWYS) at Mission Australia. We had the chance to speak to him about youth crime prevention, community education and the importance of collaboration between different stakeholders.

Can you tell us about the Youth Crime Prevention Program (YCPP) and what led to the initiative?

Trevor Summers
Trevor Summers

Trevor Summers: The program is a case management support program for young people in the Campbelltown and Liverpool area of South West Sydney. We have designed it specifically for young people between the age of 10 and 18. We provide support to them and their family to address the reason why they have become involved with the police. The main life domains in which we aim to support young people include accommodation, family relationships, education and training, employment, recreation, financial matters and many other interrelated areas. Young people receive one-on-one support for up to 3 months but the program can be extended.

YCPP was developed from a previous crime prevention program called Pasifika Support Services which was funded by the Department of Community Services. The program had financing for 4 years, but only supported Pacific Islander young people. The initiative was very successful and I wanted to make a similar prevention program available to a wider demographic, not just based on one particular nationality. It was just a really good model of early intervention. I have been able to achieve this through the support and funding that Sir David Martin Foundation (SDMF) has provided for 3 years now.

Is it difficult to get funding for youth crime prevention programs?

Trevor Summers: There is not a lot of funding for programs that specifically look at crime prevention. I don’t want to sound negative and I am certainly not saying that I have the answers to everything, but as far as crime prevention programs are concerned, NSW is still very much in its infant stage. The Treasury is really only willing to spend money to either lock young people up, which costs a lot of money of course. This is only very slowly starting to change. There has just recently been some government funding for a youth crime prevention program called Youth on Track, which is financed through the Attorney General’s Department. From my understanding, this is the first ever government funded initiative on youth crime prevention.

Do you think public perception plays a role in securing funding for youth crime prevention programs?

Trevor Summers: Yes, I think so. The issue touches upon the much wider area of community education. The average person in the community observes somebody being a victim of a crime and they actually want to see something happen to the perpetrator. I can understand that to some extent. In other programs with SWYS we are dealing with young people who have committed some pretty heavy offences and sometimes they do need to be detained. However, if we restrict ourselves to this mentality of one solution and that is “lock kids up”, it is not going to work. All research out there says that locking a young person up is not going to prevent them from committing another crime and the cost associated with locking a young person up compared to early intervention are much higher.

How does your approach differ from other preventative programs?

Trevor Summers: There are not a lot of programs out there that focus purely on crime prevention. The model we have adopted receives referrals directly from Police Youth Liaison Officer’s (PYO) and also through local Youth Justice Conferencing (YJC). We have developed a partnership with YJC. When a young person attends a conference one of our fulltime staff will meet them then and there for the first time. Staff will introduce themselves to them and the parent or care giver and detail what support they can provide. It is a very effective way of engaging with them when they are at their most vulnerable. Once a young person is accepted through the system our staff and YJC staff will continue to work together.

P14A02 Juvenile Justice WEBPDF-1We also have partnerships with many local schools. A young person who is disengaged from school is at a much higher risk at being involved in crime. When we work with a young person who has disengaged from school, on average they have not attended school for 3-4 months. However, we have had some success in reversing these trends and even managed to place a young person, who had been out of school for more than 10 months, back into school.

Home visits are another important engagement strategy of the program. Meeting the young person and their family face to face in their environment is vital to start building trust and rapport. For most young people the problem does not lie just with them. In one case, we helped a mother getting access to mental health care. This support made a big difference not only to her but also to her son’s behaviour within the community and at school.

We also deliver programs with the police to young people in the local primary schools who have been identified at risk mainly due to their behaviour. The program is called HOPE and aims to educate children in years 5-6 about decision making, confidence and self-esteem. Delivering programs with the police to this age group is a good way to discuss further concerns with parents and teaching staff.

Youth Justice Conferencing, managed by the NSW Department of Juvenile Justice, is a central part of the prevention program. In these conferences victims and their perpetrators are brought together in a formal, managed conference. What is the rationale behind these meetings?

If a police officer in NSW is dealing with a young person who has committed a crime, he has the option of either cautioning the person if it is a minor crime or they can refer that person to YJC. Young people who are just starting to be involved in crimes such as shoplifting or small cases of vandalism can be referred to YJC which sits outside the children’s magistrate.

On one hand this means we can avoid clogging up the courts up with really petty matters and it also has the benefit of keeping the young person out of the criminal justice system. Putting children into a court system often just does not work. Even at the children’s court we are still very much talking down at the young person and the language and the process can be very confusing for them. I have a lot of experience with young people who had to go to court. In most cases they will leave the room with no idea of what just happened to them.

In the court, there is no real sense of the young person taking accountability for their actions. In the YJC system, the young person, the arresting police officer, a police youth liaison officer and the victim meet and talk about how the behaviour affected others. The crime is a lot less abstract and from there we have a much better opportunity to provide the necessary support systems to prevent further crimes.

How do you determine when it is appropriate to intervene?

Trevor Summers: Usually, young people come to the program on a voluntary basis. In some case they need a little more encouragement. The partnership with the police, YJC, and schools has been designed to identify young people who are at risk and refer them to the program. After this an assessment focussing on life domains and risk factors is completed to determine the areas in which the young person needs support.

What do you consider the greatest challenges when it comes to youth crime prevention? How can different stakeholders work together to overcome these?

Trevor Summers: The biggest challenge in general is community thinking about how youth crime should be dealt with. We are still confronted with “Do the crime, do the time” type thinking. It is well known now that just locking up young people is expensive and has no real impact on decreasing youth crime.

Sir David Martin Foundation
Image source: Sir David Martin Foundation

Yes, young people should be made accountable for their actions. But to have a system that only punishes a young person, ultimately fails them. In most cases, a young criminal has been abused as a child, witnessed domestic violence at a young age, had a bad start to their schooling and then received many labels for their learning difficulties. They have received school suspension after suspension and now struggle to understand why they cannot trust adults and have become highly suspicious of them. Where can a young person like this go to for help? Where are the adults in the community that say “hey, I will help you”?

These young people have been hurt and let down by adults and then more adults want to see them punished and not helped. We are talking about children here. I believe that when the courts, Juvenile Justice, schools and community organisation can all work together then we might be able to come up with effective strategies that government will want to support. The new Youth on Track initiative funded by the NSW Attorney General’s Department is a good example for this.

The Sir David Martin Foundation is a supporter of IIR’s Juvenile Justice Conference. The event will be held for the 5th time on the 25-26 March 2014 in Melbourne.

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