VICTORIA’S “tough on crime” platform hits disadvantaged youth the hardest.

With the Victorian election looming, both major parties are battling over who can get toughest on crime. Victoria is readying itself for increased police presence, harsher penalties, longer prison sentences and fewer people released on parole.

This is despite the fact that Victorian prisons are staggeringly overcrowded and the criminal justice system is struggling with the sheer numbers of people on remand.

Even though the crime rate in Victoria has dropped significantly over the last 10 years, politicians are still clamouring about the need to get “tough on crime”.

Being “tough on crime” wins votes, but does it work?

In late 2013, the Sentencing Advisory Council found that locking people up in prison does not actually deter them from committing more crimes. In fact, imprisonment has the opposite effect, where people released from prison are more likely to re-offend. Similar results have been found in other countries, and while there has been a move away from mandatory minimum sentences and other “tough on crime” approaches in both the UK and USA, Australia has yet to follow.

Through my work as a youth lawyer, I see first-hand the impacts of “tough on crime” approaches on young people experiencing disadvantage. Youthlaw is based out of Frontyard Youth Services, a youth homelessness support hub in Melbourne’s CBD. Because of this, almost all of the young people we assist are homeless. Without exception, young people who are sleeping rough, couch-surfing or staying in youth refuges have led difficult lives marked by loss, family conflict or family breakdown.

Many are struggling with an untreated mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, an acquired brain injury, intellectual disability or a history of family violence, neglect and abuse. Some have fled to Australia escaping war and persecution, only to find themselves without a home or family support.

Sadly, LGBTI young people are disproportionately represented among those seeking our legal assistance. Too many LGBTI young people who end up homeless were kicked out of home after a parent found out about their sexual orientation or gender identity and either forced them to leave or made it unbearable to continue living at home.

Despite the harrowing experiences of young people experiencing homelessness, only a tiny percentage are charged with the types of extreme violent crimes that captivate the headlines. The majority of young people who get in trouble with the law are charged with relatively minor offences. A growing number are also victims of crime, largely due to the increased threats of violence that unstable housing and transience bring.

It is very common for homeless teenagers to be charged with stealing essential items such as food or clothing. Young people who don’t know their legal rights and responsibilities also commonly get charged for not giving their name and address to police or giving a false name and address.

Homeless teenagers are routinely fined by police and ticket inspectors for not having a ticket, sleeping on the train, using offensive language, smoking at the station or drinking in public. It is difficult for young people to avoid these fines when they have nowhere else to go, and because public transport is essential to get to and from housing appointments, health check- ups and school.

At Youthlaw, we are starting to see a trickle- down effect of “tough on crime” policies on disadvantaged youth.

Young people report being increasingly forced to “move on” from public places (train stations, shopping centres, libraries and parks) when they have done nothing wrong. The Victorian Government is currently trying to pass laws which expand existing “move on” powers and allow people to be excluded from a particular public place for up to 12 months.

Tougher bail penalties have been introduced making it an offence for someone to commit a crime on bail or to break any bail condition. For example, 18-year-old Sasha is struggling with depression and anxiety after being kicked out of home and charged with theft. She is moving around between her friends’ couches and put on bail because she forgot her first court date. She steals some clothes and is charged with theft again. Under the new laws, she will also be charged with committing an offence on bail, and will face a tougher penalty.

Young people who commit violent crimes are now subject to mandatory minimum sentences – forcing a Judge to sentence them to 4 years imprisonment for certain offences without any discretion about their background or level of involvement.

Being “tough” on crime does not work – you need to be “smart” on crime. If you want to stop people committing crimes, you need to target the underlying reasons why they committed the crimes in the first place.

In Sasha’s case, rehabilitative sentencing options requiring her to seek mental health and housing support have much better long-term outcomes for both Sasha and the community than a “tough on crime” punishment.

Another good example is Victoria Police’s Ropes program, which educates teenagers under 18 about their responsibilities to the wider community and the legal ramifications of their actions while building trust between teenagers and police. This process – called “diversion” – focuses on supporting first-time offenders to make different choices with their lives. It has proven to be very successful in deterring young people from committing further crimes, and gives teenagers a second chance without ending up with a criminal record.

For a smarter and more effective long-term approach to crime, we need to find out more about these nameless, faceless “criminals” we are told to fear, and recognise that the carrot always works better than the stick.


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