The Commission for Children and Young People has launched an independent inquiry - Our Youth, Our Way - to investigate and provide solutions to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children and young people in the Victorian youth legal system. This submission from the Human Rights Law Centre is directed at particular aspects of the legal system, including law, policies and processes that contribute to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children and young people and provides recommendations aimed at addressing systemic issues.
If the Victorian Government is serious about reducing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in the youth legal system, the approach to youth offending must be culturally safe and reflect current research and knowledge of adolescent development and neuroscience. Aboriginal community input and the evidence should inform the goals, design and implementation of Victoria’s youth justice law and policy framework.
- The majority of children in detention, around 60%, are on remand waiting for their trial or sentence. These statistics reveal a system that is geared towards imprisoning children, rather than addressing the underlying causes of ‘problematic’ behaviour, particularly through prevention and early intervention programs and services that are therapeutic, rehabilitative and youth specific. Punitive bail laws and the absence of legislative safeguards to ensure detention is an option of last resort and to prescribe diversion and alternatives to the formal system, contribute to these statistics.
- In recognition of the immense harm caused by contact with the criminal legal system, the Victorian Government must raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years and provide access to health, education and support services that will help children to stay with their families and in their communities.
- The Victorian Government should commission a review into the high rates of disengagement and exclusion of Aboriginal children from school, with a focus on policies, procedures and practices that may contribute to suspension, expulsion, truancy, attendance and engagement issues. This review should involve direct consultation and engagement with Aboriginal children and their families, in a process that is designed and led by a culturally-appropriate educator or researcher.
- Victoria Police establish a specialist, highly trained Youth Division, similar to New Zealand Police Youth Aid. All officers involved in youth cautioning, diversion or youth engagement be encouraged to hold or gain specialist qualifications in youth justice and receive ongoing professional development in youth justice.
- The Victorian Government, in partnership with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, needs to develop and provide a range of culturally responsive and gender specific diversionary programs tailored to meet the intersectional needs of Aboriginal children and young people.