Reconstructing juvenile justice – a seven-point plan.

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Terry Laidler.

A major public storm has erupted in Victoria about the government’s decision to locate a new juvenile justice detention centre at Werribee in the city’s south-west. Locals see it as demeaning to their neighbourhood, but, in my view, the whole idea is wrong, NOT just the site!  
prison. Raffaella. flickr cc.

Putting 250 behaviourally-disturbed kids of different ages with different needs in one prison-like institution is a recipe for further trouble. We should have learned that from riots across the country, from Don Dale in the NT, to Parkville, Malmsbury, and Barwon in Victoria, Banksia Hill in WA, or Kariong in NSW.

The root of the present problem is in trying to impose a failed adult corrections model on kids. We need to treat them differently, because they are different: their emotional maturity, impulse control, and social connection are incomplete. Many of the kids in the juvenile justice system have been abused, come from dysfunctional families or state care, or have untreated behavioural, mental health or substance abuse problems.

Warehousing them in the punishing idleness of a prison regime and expecting passive compliance, let alone any recovery, is fanciful. We need to think about how we care for these kids in a holistic way:

To get this going in Victoria :

  1. Priority 1 should be the establishment of a world-class Young Peoples Forensic Assessment and Treatment Service, perhaps a joint venture between Forensicare and Orygen, incorporating the Childrens Court Clinic. An assessment and treatment centre for up to 100 kids should be built on the Parkville site. It should run on the model of Forensicare’s Thomas Enbling Hospital: a therapeutic service run by mental health professionals inside walls secured by Corrections Victoria.
  1. A high-security detention facility for about 50 kids could also be built on the Parkville site. Such a facility is needed to deal with particularly dangerous and recidivist kids, but absolutely should not form the model for the whole system, nor should these kids be housed with others much more vulnerable.
  1. The current Children & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) should be reengineered with a clear brief to work in prevention and diversion with kids and their families when they are identified as at risk in our schools and in diversion programs.
  1. Some of the recently promised 4000 extra Victoria Police members should be specially trained to work in community diversion with young people. Some have already been ‘hypothecated’ to work in family violence prevention: many of those with whom they work will be kids often seen in the juvenile justice system.
  1. A highly upgraded supervision system overseen by Corrections Victoria should replace adult concepts like probation, bail, and parole, with broad, flexible, Court-supervised Community Orders.
  1. The Childrens’ Court would need to be beefed up considerably to cope with its new diversion and supervision responsibilities.
  1. Beyond high-security and assessment and treatment centres, there should be another four to six facilities, still run on the Embling model: Corrections looking after security, but inside the walls a secondary school campus, a couple of TAFEs, an outdoor skills learning centre, a special purpose Koori learning facility, and the like, all charged with engaging local communities.
  1. A series of step up/step down ‘foyers’ would allow kids to continue in the community programs they begin in detention, or to start programs after assessment and treatment without being detained .

This will cost A LOT, but at least it has some chance of not being good money wasted after bad – what a continuation of the current model will deliver in wasted lives.

And then, Werribee, like every other part of the state, might be happy to take have one or more of these facilities … because they’re OUR kids!

Terry Laidler is an Honorary Senior Fellow in the School of Population & Global Health at the University of Melbourne. He chaired the  former Victorian Mental Health Reform Council. 
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