It’s been five years since I completed work experience as a Youth Worker at the Juvenile Justice Centre, supervising male offenders between the ages of 15-20 in the Youth Training facility. Being exposed to the toxicity behind the prison walls made me appreciate why the Children’s Court is legislated to reserve incarceration as an absolute last sentencing response to juvenile crime. It is an experience I feel I must share in light of the Baillieu Government’s nonsensical proposal to sentence teenagers to a mandatory minimum of two years imprisonment for committing ‘gross violence’.
While mandatory sentencing satisfies the retributive desire to punish the offender, it fails to have any long-term rehabilitative impact on the child. Statistical analysis conducted on juvenile recidivism by the Department of Human Services revealed that 42 per cent of children released from Victorian prisons re-offend within their first year, and 57 per cent within their second year. Indeed, the poisonous friendships forged within custody ensure that a child who enters the prison system with a Diploma in assault or car theft is released with a PhD in more serious crimes such as armed robbery and aggravated burglary. It is an alarming criminal graduation because unlike the adult prison system, every single child who enters prison eventually walks back into our society.
The most toxic consequence of juvenile incarceration is the offender’s potential desire to not want to leave the prison facility; otherwise referred to as ‘offender institutionalisation’. I vividly remember feeling sickened by the systemic failure of the juvenile justice system after witnessing the return of an offender into remand only two days after his release. The child admittedly wanted to return to the environment he knew best, so he intentionally held-up a service station upon his release.
Witnessing the institutionalisation of offenders taught me that the greatest deterrence of juvenile crime was not the American system of warehousing children in prisons with orange jumpsuits, but rather capitalising on the child’s initial uncertainty and fear of going to prison through police cautioning, diversion, and non-custodial orders. This is why the Victorian Court of Appeal held that ‘general deterrence was excluded from consideration in the sentencing of children’ in the recent case of CNK v The Queen VSCA 228 [at 7].
Reading through offender files I remember the most agonising revelation was the tendency that kids with the greatest number of charges were often the kids with the greatest number of devastating life circumstances. Life circumstances which could not be fathomed in one’s adult life, let alone a child’s life. Physical, emotional, sexual, and substance abuse were common narratives. In one case I remember reading that at the age of 13 the offender was conferred the role of locating and arranging male clients for his sex worker mother, and in return for his work, his mother would reward him by feeding his ice addiction.
If we want children to grow into productive law-abiding adults we need to do away with the archaic Machiavellian iron-fist mentality. We must open our eyes to the reality that juvenile offending is part of a deep-seated social problem of poverty, parenting, schooling, and abuse, which is only exacerbated by the toxicity of juvenile incarceration. Instead of breeding career criminals, the Baillieu Government ought to increase funding for community reintegration programs and encourage the use of remarkable juvenile support services such as WhiteLion to help lead kids at risk into a direction away from juvenile imprisonment, not into prison.