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A justice system that respects and keeps everyone safe 

Our justice system should work to keep everyone safe, especially children, and to help build a community that is a fair and peaceful place for everybody to live.

But if we want our justice system to function like this, we need to make some big changes. 

We know the protective factors that help children and young people to live their best lives and make positive contributions to their community. These include safe and nurturing families, strong connections to culture, positive school engagement, good health and wellbeing, viable pathways to a rewarding career, support to recover from any early trauma, and a meaningful voice for young people in the decisions that affect them. 

At the moment, our community is failing to provide these good things for every child, and we can see the results in our justice system. At present, children as young as 10 can be imprisoned in Victoria. Once young children go into the justice system they are at high risk of suffering poor wellbeing outcomes, and growing up to become adult offenders. Our justice system locks up disproportionate numbers of young people who have already been abused, unwell or marginalised – for example, 71% of young people held in Victoria’s youth justice centres have been through abuse, trauma or neglect, almost 40% have been child protection clients, and 26% show “issues concerning their intellectual functioning”. Aboriginal young Victorians are 14 times as likely to be on a justice order as their non-Aboriginal peers.

Far more work is needed to build communities where young people do not engage in crime, and can be diverted away from any offending early on. But a comprehensive review of our youth justice system found that a mere 1% of youth justice investment went into early intervention programs and only 3% to court-based diversion and restorative justice. 

Victoria does have some good initiatives which are making a difference. For instance, the 2017-18 budget saw welcome extension of the Children’s Court Youth Diversion Service and Community-based Koori Youth Justice Program, and other initiatives to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal young people in the justice system. Meanwhile, the Education Justice Initiative has shown strong results in getting disengaged young people from the Children’s Court back to school, and there has been a recent push to build the expertise and youth engagement of lawyers in the Children’s Court. However, further work is needed. 

A very small number of Victorians aged under 18 are involved in committing multiple and serious crimes – this group may comprise fewer than 200 young people in the whole state. We need to develop smarter, more effective ways of working with these young people, but large new prisons and harsher approaches towards everyone are not warranted or effective. The number of young Victorians involved in offending has actually fallen significantly over the past decade – in 2015, less than 2% of under-18s were alleged by Victoria Police to have committed a crime – and most young people who get in trouble with the law are classed as 'low offending'. Our justice system must be grounded in reality. An evidence-based approach should also involve listening to the insights of young people themselves. The Justice for Koorie Youth project (August 2018) provides an example of how to approach this transformative work.