Youth gangs running amok at public events in central Melbourne, riots and escapes at juvenile jails, terrifying home invasions, armed robberies and carjackings in the suburbs – these stories have played out in nightmarish TV images and on tabloid front pages in Victoria over the past 18 months.
ISSUES of youth crime and justice pose an obvious electoral danger to the Andrews Labor government.
The government has established a parliamentary inquiry and moved to bring in longer sentences and increased police powers of monitoring and control.
In a move that attracted the most controversy, young prisoners were transferred out of juvenile detention centres into rapidly adapted areas of adult prisons following the escapes and riots that damaged facilities.
The state opposition meanwhile hammers away at the theme of the government being too soft on crime and weak in punishment.
This criticism has also been prevalent in the tabloid press, on talkback radio and even picked up by federal politicians such Senator Derryn Hinch.
It is also an issue that has become a battleground over immigration, with the term ‘Apex’ constantly looming large in coverage.
The Apex Gang, named after a street in Dandenong where it is said to have originated, has been characterised as a group of predominantly Sudanese youth, with some Pacific Islander and other African nationality membership.
It achieved peak notoriety after gang members were involved in mass brawls that broke out in Melbourne’s CBD during last year’s Moomba celebration.
Apex members have since been deported with federal Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton also criticising the Andrews government’s handling of youth crime and a federal parliamentary inquiry set up to look into how well migrant communities have settled, with a focus on Melbourne.
However, a number of experts and those at work in the field have disputed or at least qualified the impression that lenient and lax authorities have lost control both on the streets and in the jails as youth crime has swelled up from ethnic communities.
JULIE Edwards is chief executive officer of Jesuit Social Services that runs a number of programs in the area of youth justice. She points out that statistics tell a nuanced story, rather than one of a rampant and deteriorating breakdown of social order.
“Victoria historically has done very well in keeping down the offending rates, the recidivism rate and the incarceration rate of young people compared to other states and territories,” Ms Edwards said.
“There used to be a stronger focus on diversion and rehabilitation, which is great. So we actually were sitting down the end where we had lower numbers of offenders etc.
“Overall, we are still lower than where we were five years ago. We’ve been on a downward trend for some time. So we haven’t got a huge problem about offending in this state.”
Ms Edwards, however, said there had been an increase in some very serious types of offending, such as aggravated burglary and carjackings.
“We don’t resile from the fact that we do have a problem. There is a relatively small group of young people who have been committing serious repeat offences,” she said.
“But the reality is that you don’t base a whole system or don’t turn a whole system around on the basis that there is a small group.
“You look at the whole system and also you look at what’s working well and keep that in place and you look at what you can do for that group of young people.”
Police also assert that they have responded effectively to the spike in some crime categories.
“We established Operation Cosmas in May last year to target the rise in aggravated burglaries and carjackings that were being committed by networked young offenders,” Victoria Police assistant commissioner Stephen Leane told Crosslight.
“While we cannot go into the operational details, Cosmas certainly had an impact. We saw the peak of these offences in June and July last year and since then we’ve seen a reduction.”
AC LEANE and other senior police have cast doubt on whether Apex still exists, and questioned whether it was ever a gang at all as traditionally understood.
Apex has no real defined neighbourhood turf or headquarters, no consistently gathered membership, no colours or other signifiers and doesn’t actually consist of any one ethnic group.
According to police and other authorities, Apex is a loosely connected network of individuals of various nationalities, over half of which are Australian-born, who have used social media and instant messaging to discuss and often boast of crimes and criminal intent.
Writing about this “anti-social” media on academic commentary website The Conversation University of Melbourne criminology lecturer Mark Wood argued that Apex was not so much a gang but more a hashtag or brand used to promote “performance crimes”.
As such those who identified with or as being Apex have thrived on the notoriety of media coverage.
“Giving the individuals and groups who undertake these crimes additional media attention is, therefore, exactly what they want,” Mr Woods said.
“Perpetrators commit such acts with the hope they will receive media coverage, which many tabloid publications eagerly provide.”
AC Leane agreed that the media mystique built up around the term Apex had added to its allure.
“While it is not for police to analyse media reporting on a particular issue, it is true that we have seen some young offenders revel in the notoriety that has accompanied media reporting on their offending,” he said.
VIEWPOINTS on how endemic crime is to the Sudanese or other ethnic communities can depend on how statistics are read.
Sudanese make up only 0.11 per cent of Victoria’s population and correspondingly are only a small component of total offenders, but they are over-represented per capita.
Conservative News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt has long accused police and some media outlets of downplaying the high rates of crime associated with the Sudanese community, which he blames on problems of cultural incompatibility.
AC Leane denies that the problem has been air-brushed.
“African community leaders have acknowledged that a problem exists amongst a small group of young people from African backgrounds involved in serious offending over recent times – and police do not deny this,” AC Lean said.
“But this is a behavioural issue, not an ethnicity issue – no one is born to commit crime.
“Overall the issue of youth offending is broader than a single community or cultural group.
“We’ve also seen very serious offending amongst young people of other backgrounds.”
Ms Edwards said that though there were new technological characteristics associated with contemporary youth crime it wasn’t an unprecedented social or cultural situation.
“We always have new waves of refugees or new arrivals and that has happened from the 50s, we’ve had different groups of people right through to now.
“So we’d say it’s not a brand new problem,” she said.
“We would say the same underlying causes in young people are in play. Namely they want to belong, they want to feel there’s a future and a possibility for them and hope.”
She said those who felt marginalised were often referred to by police and others as feeling “locked out”.
‘They don’t really see a future for themselves because they may be new arrivals and seeing that their mum and dad haven’t been able to break into mainstream society to get good work,” Ms Edwards said.
She argues that what is needed is a less reactive response.
“Nobody ever does the longer term response … if we analyse which postcodes these young people come from it’s actually a handful of postcodes,” she said.
“We actually know which postcodes we could take a long-term approach to and invest more heavily in.
“Keeping people connected to school, making sure there are job opportunities in those areas. It’s a long-term investment in those areas where we have the same kind of core risk indicators over-represented.
“So, if you really want to tackle crime, and the Leader of the Opposition is saying that you can’t put a price on community safety, well then bloody invest in what we can do to prevent crime.”
AC Leane, while insisting that police had always been tough on crime and had stepped up their arrest rate, also advocated a broader approach.
“As the old adage goes, this is not a problem we can arrest our way out of,” he said.
“Leadership and cross-government collaboration is needed to address the drivers of offending.”
PERHAPS even more politically embarrassing for the government than the rise in serious types of youth offence has been the scenes of chaos at youth detention facilities in Parkville and Malmsbury.
Rioting inmates have destroyed property, assaulted staff and even staged high-profile breakouts.
For some, this has been seen as evidence of a youth justice system that’s gone soft.
“Putting young thugs behind bars with meaningful sentences will send a message that cannot be misunderstood,” the Herald Sun editorialised late last year.
“As the juvenile justice system now stands, it is incapable of holding violent young thugs to account. The jail door must be slammed shut. Young thugs must be sent to serious prisons, not youth holiday camps.”
Paradoxically, moves to toughen juvenile detention, including the controversial housing of offenders and those on remand in dedicated areas of adult prisons, have coincided with a national outcry and the subsequent royal commission over the shocking images of the fully hooded teenager Dylan Voller manacled to a chair at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale youth detention centre.
Victoria’s hardline responses and rhetoric have also gone against the almost unanimous expert testimony that tougher youth prison sentences and conditions do not succeed in reducing crime.
“At the moment the answer seems to be locking people up, well we are not a country that keeps people locked up until they die,” Ms Edwards said.
“Ninety-nine per cent of people get out of prison. Prison isn’t the answer in that they are going to come back into the community. All the research shows that we should divert people from further engagement with the criminal justice system not widen the net and bring more people in.”
She offers an alternative explanation for what went wrong with Victoria’s juvenile justice system, previously seen as one of the nation’s more progressive and successful, than that it became too lenient.
“The system had been neglected. With a changeover of people and moving to a more punitive, less relationship-based approach, the system became more brittle and fragile where you had people acting up more,” Ms Edwards said.
She said cutbacks had led to untrained and unqualified people working in centres. Facilities were often undermanned with high levels of absenteeism among staff. Staff often rely on lockdowns, where detainees are confined to their rooms, as a tool to keep control.
Also because of tougher bail laws many of those in detention are on remand and awaiting trial.
She described these conditions as something of a “perfect storm”.
“You’ve got staff who are unqualified and not able to do it even with their best intentions. They’re not supported to work in a therapeutic rehabilitative way. And you have young people who have a lot of uncertainty, who may feel it is unfair they haven’t even been convicted and they’re in jail,” she said.
“They do arbitrary lockdowns, not because the young people are misbehaving but because the staff aren’t managing.
“They lockdown whole units and when young people feel it’s happened for no good reason it builds resentment. Their family, workers or lawyers can’t get to see them.”
MS EDWARDS argues we need a clear vision of what juvenile detention is for.
“In the short-term we need to change the model so we are very clear it is about rehabilitation not just punishment,” she said.
“We need to have a clear operating vision and operating model so everyone in youth justice knows what to do, you don’t have rogue people locking people down because they don’t have the skills.
“We believe it is possible to help people turn their lives around if you offer really targeted intensive support.”
She argues that there are often ways to work with young offenders besides locking them up.
One such program run by Jesuit Social Services is Youth Justice Group Conferencing.
“It’s not a soft option on crime,” she said.
“It’s a very tough response where you bring the young person and a victim or a victim representative together with police and a lawyer and perhaps the young person’s parent or there might be a teacher as well, someone from the community.
“People talk about what happened from their point of view, the police talk about it, the young person does. And then a plan is made.”
“The research shows that victims are much more satisfied with that process than, for example, courts. The evidence from our model is that the young person is less likely to reoffend and overall it’s a very healing and restorative process. The young person feels that in some way they have atoned for what they have done and in some way set it right with the community and the person that they have harmed.”
She argues this type of approach is also more cost-effective.
‘”The methods we are talking about are much less costly than prison,” Ms Edwards said.
“Locking up young people, or older people too, running those large institutions is very expensive compared with a case worker who would be working with however many young people and keeping them out of prison.”
“That’s a much more effective use of money but not only for that year. These people are going to be 30 and 40 and 50 and we want them to be productive members of the community. We want them to get trained.
“We want them to get jobs. We want them to contribute over time not just the year in front of us and this is where we need to take both a short-term and a long-term view.”
“We believe it is possible because people ultimately want the same things. They want to belong, they want to be recognised as a productive person in the community. But unless you give people those opportunities they are going to find their identity elsewhere.”
The Uniting Church is part of the Victorian Inter-Church Criminal Justice Taskforce. Find out more about their advocacy work at www.vcc.org.au
In February the Justice & International Mission unit ran a letter action campaign A Youth Justice System That Works.
It invited church members to write polite and respectful letters to:
The Hon. Daniel Andrews
1 Treasury Place East Melbourne, VIC 3002
Salutation: Dear Premier
Points to make in your letters:
- Request the Victorian government to resist the attempts by some media outlets to dictate the government’s approach to youth justice. Ask that the Victorian Government continue to have a focus on rehabilitation of teenagers and young people who break the law, with imprisonment being a last resort.
- Ask the Victorian government to follow the successful models of youth justice, such as New Zealand that has had a 40 per cent reduction in youth crime in the last five years, rather than the failed path of the US youth justice system that destroys lives, reduces community safety and wastes valuable government revenue that could be used for the benefit of our community.
- Note that the youth justice system will not work to reduce crime and increase community safety if it is not adequately resourced to ensure issues of past abuse, mental health issues, and drug and alcohol dependency of the youth in it are not addressed. There needs to be sufficient numbers of appropriately qualified staff working in the system.
Please also write letters to your local paper, the Herald Sun and The Age.
Letters to The Age can be submitted at: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/letters-submit
Letters to the Herald Sun: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/letter-to-the-editor
Letters should be about 150 words and submitted by midday at the latest.