The riots at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre in November 2016 and the Government’s subsequent establishment of a youth justice centre within Barwon Prison have prompted reviews, inquiries, and legal proceedings, by numerous agencies. These include the responsible department, the Commission for Children and Young People, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and Parliament. It is not the purpose of this report to add to those inquiries; rather, it is intended to inform Parliament – and through them the public – of the response to recent events by oversight agencies, and to put facts into the public domain to help inform the debate.
The public debate that has accompanied these events is predictably polarised, from one perspective that youth crime is out of control and a strong response is needed, to the claim that the Government’s response is an overreaction that arbitrarily infringed the human rights of the young people concerned.
The facts that emerge from independent sources provide succour to both sides of the debate: while youth crime is decreasing overall, more is being committed, more violently, by a small cohort of repeat offenders, who the system is plainly failing to deal with. This was presciently noted by the previous Ombudsman, George Brouwer, in 2013, when he said:
It is evident that the youth justice system is limited in its capacity to deal with a small, but increasing, cohort of young people exhibiting violent behaviours. It is important that the youth justice system respond appropriately to these children rather than abrogate its responsibility by transferring them to the adult system.
This is illustrated by the startling statistic that some 25 per cent of offences are committed by less than two per cent of offenders – 182 young people – so we should not tar all young offenders with the same brush.
It is not the purpose of this report to examine the causes of the recent Parkville riots, but the Ombudsman’s concerns about the suitability of Parkville are a matter of public record, including the view expressed by my predecessor in 2010 that:
the design and location of the Precinct is inappropriate for a custodial facility which houses vulnerable children.
... the only practical way to address the conditions at the Precinct in the long term is to develop a new facility at another site.
Among other things, the report noted design features such as a low roof-line allowing detainees to climb onto the roof and ill-placed staircases creating blind spots and posing a safety risk to detainees and staff. It is a matter of record that while the government’s response to that report was in many respects substantial – for example, the establishment of Parkville College that transformed the educational services available to young people – the precinct itself still exists and young people are still able to climb onto the roof.
The record so far is patchy – while improvements have undoubtedly been made, successive governments have failed to make the significant investment needed to address the long-term issues that are increasingly apparent. There is no short-term quick fix to the serious problems affecting youth justice, which have their origins not only in ageing infrastructure but in the complex interplay of health and human services, education and the justice system. Increasing numbers of detainees are also on remand – making for an increasingly volatile and unsettled cohort.
I welcome the government’s review of youth justice – commissioned last year before the recent troubles and led by an eminent behavioural scientist – with its focus on long- term and joined-up solutions. The chorus of blame will not make us safer as we worry about youth crime. Nor will it make either the staff or the young people safer – an essential prerequisite if youth justice facilities are to provide an environment that promotes rehabilitation. Safety will lie in a system that makes it less likely these young people will be repeat offenders. It is neither in the interests of public safety nor the public purse for young people to become entrenched in a life of crime, cycling through youth justice centres into adult prisons to which all too often they return.
Reform must also recognise not only the alarming trend to more ‘calculated and callous offending’ by young offenders, but also the systemic changes needed to address this deeply disturbing behaviour. My 2015 report into rehabilitation in prisons illustrated how ill-equipped the correctional system is to deal with young adult prisoners; Victoria’s dual track system must go on recognising that children – even dangerous children – are different from adults.
This report is of a different nature to most reports I present to Parliament. It is the product of enquiries and information shared by other oversight bodies rather than a formal investigation. I hope it will also assist the Parliamentary Inquiry in their work.
It is also intended to give Parliament and the public a window into the actual state of affairs within Victoria’s youth justice facilities and how oversight agencies hold government to account. The report evidences the close scrutiny of the Grevillea unit in Barwon Prison by the Commission for Children and Young People since the unit was hastily set up last November.
It also evidences the pressures on the Parkville and Malmsbury facilities: while staff shortages have long been a problem there, this has plainly been exacerbated by the creation of Grevillea, with the predictable effect that young people are kept in lockdown for longer periods, creating further unrest.
This report covers the period to 20 January 2017, and was being finalised when the serious disturbances at Malmsbury occurred on 25 January. While it is sadly inevitable that short- term solutions will continue to be sought to deal with urgent situations that arise, it is vital that the government keep its sights set on long-term reform that addresses the causes of young offender behaviour. Reform should not be derailed by knee-jerk responses to events, which will not make us safer in the long run.
The situation continues to evolve, and will no doubt have evolved further by the time this report is tabled. I anticipate that this will not be the last report I provide on this troubled issue.