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Crimes (Restorative Justice) Amendment Bill 2018

Madam Speaker, I rise today to briefly address the amendment bill under debate.

This proposed legislation seeks to improve access to restorative justice in the ACT. Whilst the restorative justice scheme focuses primarily on meeting the needs of victims of crime, it is acknowledged that offenders may also benefit from participation in the scheme. This bill includes provisions that specifically target young offenders in an attempt to engage more of them in restorative justice.

In particular, it shifts the threshold for young offenders who have committed what is defined as a ‘less serious offence’ to be referred for restorative justice. Under current legislation, all offenders so referred must accept responsibility for the commission of the offence. This bill proposes that young offenders be deemed eligible as long as they do not deny responsibility for the commission of the offence.

This seems like a very small change in both wording and meaning, but it attempts to acknowledge that acceptance of responsibility is a subjective test and that a number of young people may not present as accepting responsibility at the point of apprehension by police, potentially creating unnecessary barriers to restorative justice.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not this amendment will have its intended outcome. It is, however, worth the attempt. One of the stated purposes for this proposed change in eligibility is to increase the possibility for referrals for young people to be made as diversions from the criminal justice system. In light of known complications with this territory’s youth detention centre in particular, this would, in my opinion, be a very good thing.

Madam Speaker, I have stood many times before in this chamber to raise concerns about this government’s management of the Bimberi Youth Detention Centre. Many of the concerns that I, the Canberra Liberals, the Human Rights Commissioner and others have raised have a long history, stretching back to the old Quamby Detention Centre, but they continue causing trouble in our current detention facility.

Some of these systemic problems include concerns over human rights compliance, low staff morale, the resulting high numbers of staff turnover and issues with understaffing. Understaffing has been a significant issue recently. When Bimberi has insufficient youth workers, the end result is that kids have to be locked in their rooms. There were a total of 34 of these operational lockdowns in the 12 months ending on 30 June last year. Then in the next six months, operation lockdowns surged to 95 in total. To put this into perspective, Madam Speaker, this means that children and young people in this territory’s youth detention facility were confined to their rooms on average once every other day during this reporting period.

Another significant concern has been this government’s failure to guarantee the personal safety of the youth who find themselves in detention. In the same six-month period when 95 operation lockdowns occurred at Bimberi, ten assaults also occurred. Minister Stephen-Smith has previously stated that such violent incidents are simply what occurs ‘every now and again’ ‘when you have people like that together’.

Madam Speaker, I reject this position of surrender when it comes to vulnerable children and young people. A 2016 report written jointly by the Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians identified a number of factors that create opportunities for assaults to occur in places of youth detention. Two main factors are inadequate staffing levels and lack of necessary training for staff – issues that this government holds specific responsibility for.

Again paraphrasing another Australian parliamentarian, if a government can’t guarantee the safety of a juvenile detainee, then they’re failing in their basic requirements as a government.

Poorly run youth detention centres, unfortunately, often turn into training grounds for adult corrections. Unfortunately, we do not have any clear or reliable data on how often this might happen in the ACT – though I do wish to remind the minister that, in October last year, she committed this government to working towards creating these data and ensuring that the Youth Justice Taskforce considers this issue as part of its work. For this and the other concerns I raised above, I therefore welcome any attempt to decrease the number of children and young people detained at Bimberi if a better solution is available.

This is an important point, Madam Speaker, and I consider this bill to be a very small step in the right direction. A number of forward-thinking jurisdictions around this planet have had enormous success in treating youth offending by moving away from traditional models of youth justice, no matter how well intentioned, in favour of more robust and thoroughly evidence-based approaches. One of the characteristics that these approaches have in common is an attempt to involve not just the offender but also her or his family and, where possible, broader social network.

I note with some satisfaction, therefore, that the explanatory notes for this bill acknowledge that ‘restorative justice processes may be tailored to include a young person’s community of care (i.e. parents, caregivers, support workers and/or family members)’. I respectfully suggest, Madam Speaker, that such processes not only ‘may’ but most definitely should extend to a youth’s ‘community of care’. The best evidence-based programs to rehabilitate youth offenders all take a whole-of-family approach.

We still have a very long way to go in this territory when it comes to getting youth justice right, but we are a small jurisdiction, and I am confident that, with the right leadership and policies in place, we would be ideally placed to meet the needs of children and young people who find themselves in trouble. This legislation is certainly a small step in the right direction, and I therefore commend it to this Assembly.

Thank you.

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