By PAUL McDONALD*
The strident campaign against Victoria’s new teen bail laws by police, commentators and victims’ advocates is understandable but misinformed.
It is understandable because it comes in the wake of a series of high-profile and frightening incidents including the Moomba riots of evidence of teenage involvement in terrorism plotting.
It is misguided because the new laws are aimed at preventing the very consequences that the campaigners are so concerned about.
How quickly we forget in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. If the campaigners win it will be a step back in time.
Three years ago, Victoria toughened up its teenage bail laws after an identical bout of community outrage about violent offenders breaching bail and repeating their crimes. The community’s concern was fair enough.
But the unintended consequence of the new law three years ago was a dramatic increase in the number of children being held in prison-like conditions on remand. The number of 10 to 14 year-olds on remand doubled in two years with a total of 517 young people ending up on remand. This was a disturbing trend that ran counter to basic principles of a civilised youth justice system.
The 2013 changes – now reversed – introduced new criminal offences for breaching various conditions of bail. These conditions include curfews, geographical restrictions, no contact with certain individuals and restrictions on driving.
The main problem with the 2013 law was that it made it an offence if a child or young person was to breach these conditions. With it now an offence, young people were being remanded in custody at a rate of knots for what equated to being in the wrong postcode or not getting home on time.
It is somewhat surprising that Victoria Police and the Police Association are calling for a repeal to this latest amendment, as supporting the remanding of children for breaching bail only promotes further risk of more dangerous crime as these children
are being remanded with serious offenders and at risk of being influenced, or worse still, being impressed by the more serious offenders also on remand.
International research shows that the earlier a child is subjected to a prison environment, the more likely the child is to be a repeat offender as a result. For a child, two days in remand can be life-threatening and life influencing, (the wrong way), on a young impressionable mind. Thus the bail law unamended was in effect helping to convert these young people into criminals or misfits.
The changes now introduced remove the ability for children to be charged with breaching bail and thereby directly addressing the numbers of children being remanded for minor behavioural discrepancies. What is not being changed is the courts ability to remand a young person if he or she commits another offence whilst on bail. The over inflated posturing by police and sections of the media seems odd given that the ability to remand a young person who offends whilst on bail remains untouched?
Children in the criminal justice system are amongst the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community. They land there often as a result of another system’s shortfalls. Our education system has failed to help them as 57 per cent have less than Year 9 standard. They are often victims of child abuse or neglect, with 62 per cent of youth parole clients are past or present child protection clients. And 36 per cent of youth justice clients have parents or siblings who have been imprisoned.
The chair of the Youth Parole Board, Justice Michael Bourke, noted in his recent annual report that children should not be held in remand unless necessary. He said there should be more well-resourced bail programs, including safe accommodation and care, and more use of diversion programs, as we have seen in the recent State Budget announcement.
Those calling for change are in effect calling for more children to be thrown behind bars on minor bail mistakes and thus having more children exposed to a treadmill of custody culture for breaches of a law and conditions they may not even understand.
Such mistakes do not deserve the punishment of imprisonment, and now the law recognises this. It is a time for relief not contrived outrage.
*Paul McDonald is Chief Executive Officer of Anglicare Victoria