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Throughout its decade-long working history in Victoria’s Youth Justice Group Conferencing space, Jesuit Social Services has facilitated hundreds of improved outcomes for young offenders and their victims. For Glen McClure, the organisation’s Youth Justice Group Conferencing Coordinator, few stories have resonated as deeply as that of Billy (not his real name).
By the age of 13, Billy had significant involvement with Child Protection, had faced a number of criminal charges and had made several appearances in the criminal division of the Children’s Court.
“The Children’s Court referred Billy to Group Conferencing to try and find a different way for the justice system to address his offending behaviour because at 13 he was already in a cycle of offending,” says Glen.
Youth Justice Group Conferencing is a state-wide initiative, best described as a problem-solving approach to offending. By creating a dialogue between eligible 10-17 year olds that have offended; and their victims, families and police, the process allows all parties to share how they were impacted by the offence. While the young person is still held accountable for their actions, the process is proven to increase victim satisfaction with the criminal justice process while utilising current resources (including family) to support the young person. An outcome plan is drawn up during the conference, which is submitted to Magistrates and results in a discount in sentencing after successfully completing a Group Conference.
In the case of Billy, a Magistrate was planning to impose a lower order sentence before referring the matter to Jesuit Social Services.
Over five months, Glen met with Billy and members of his support network to understand his needs, triggers, strengths and weaknesses.
Eight people – including Billy, residential unit staff, a therapeutic counsellor and a Department of Human Services Youth Justice worker – convened for the conference.
“I was advised by various professionals who knew Billy that his attention span lasted 30 minutes at most. His group conference lasted for an hour and 15 minutes,” says Glen.
“He spoke for the first time to everyone about what frustrates him in life, what makes him angry, what confuses him and what would make him happy in the future. He also appeared to appreciate being asked how he felt about certain parts of his life and promised to work on his behavioural issues.’’
Glen and Daniel Clements, General Manager at Jesuit Social Services’ Brosnan Services, presented on the organisation’s five-year involvement with the process at the 5th Annual National Juvenile Justice Summit in Melbourne. The two-day event also featured an array of speakers from diverse bodies such as the Children’s Court of NSW, YMCA Victoria, Port Phillip Prison and North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.
Daniel and Glen’s presentation – Realising the Potential of Restorative Justice – included an overview of group conferencing, discussion of restorative justice practices in alternative settings (such as through the child protection’s out of home care system and for young people on remand in custodial settings and for those facing custodial sentences) and a practical exploration of Billy’s story.
During the presentation, Glen explained why the process is far from a ‘soft option.’
‘’For a young person to sit in a room full of people impacted by their offence is incredibly challenging,’’ he says.
‘’The involvement of the victims is also critical, to [help them to] regain a renewed sense of security.’’
Group Conferencing has a huge success rate. A KPMG review completed in 2010 found that more than 80% of group conferencing participants did not reoffend within 24 months, while a comparison group who didn’t go through Group Conferencing reoffended at a rate of 43% over the same period. Importantly 100% of victims were satisfied with the entire process.
‘’There is also overwhelming evidence of victims’ improved mental health and improved sense of safety after going through the process,’’ says Daniel.
Glen reiterates that the process may not completely divert Billy away from the justice system, given his deeply ingrained personal and behavioural challenges.
“However it has gone a long way to sorting out some of his present issues with staff and gave all workers who have an interest in Billy the opportunity to reassess the way they work with him and plan for his future.’’
Through Brosnan Services – a holistic support service for young people existing adult prisons and/or Youth Justice centres – Jesuit Social Services works with an array of participants assessed as high risk with limited networks, accommodation and post-release support options.