What Can We Do About Young People & Crime?

Young people run riot during Melbourne’s Moomba festivities. Out of control teenagers create chaos at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre, causing more than $1 million damage. Premier Daniel Andrews pronounces himself utterly sick of the behaviour. “I am sick, and the Victorian community is sick of it,” he said.

Q: So what is the scale of the problem at our youth justice centres?

There are two elements to Victoria’s so-called youth crime crisis: the recent frightening and chaotic scenes at the Parkville youth justice facility and Malmsbury juvenile jail, and fears about young people committing crimes under the banner of the so-called Apex gang.

The problems plaguing the state’s youth justice facilities are real, and getting worse.

Over the weekend and on Monday, young people ripped ceilings and walls apart at Parkville, threw computers through the windows and armed themselves before climbing onto the roof.

The damage to the centre was so great that the government has been forced to make arrangements to send dozens of young people to the adult prison at Barwon.

It didn’t hurt that the move made the government look tough on youth crime.

In September, inmates and guards clashed for three days at Parkville. Last month, there was unrest at Malmsbury, which mirrored similar scenes there in September. It’s understood there have been about a dozen serious incidents at youth justice facilities in Victoria since last October.

Youths  protesting on the roof of the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre in Parkville in March.
Youths protesting on the roof of the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre in Parkville in March. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Q: And what about youth crime?

Here, the picture is less clear cut.

Shadow corrections spokesman Edward O’Donohue issued a press release on Thursday bemoaning the “crime tsunami engulfing Victoria”.

Members of the Apex gang have been blamed for the Moomba riots in Melbourne's CBD in March.
Members of the Apex gang have been blamed for the Moomba riots in Melbourne’s CBD in March. Photo: Courtesy of @russmulry, via Twitter

The truth looks very different. While overall crime rates in Victoria are up 11 per cent, according to the latest data from the Crime Statistics Agency, the number of young people aged 10-19 caught committing crimes has actually dropped over the past four years. So too has the number of offences they are committing.

The numbers are interesting. In the most recent financial year (2015-16), 23,865 children aged 10-19 were caught committing 64,369 offences.

Damaged caused to the ceiling of the Youth Justice Centre by rioters in March.
Damaged caused to the ceiling of the Youth Justice Centre by rioters in March. Photo: supplied

Four years ago, 32,761 young people  were responsible for 73,427 offences – so the rate of offending is dropping at a much lower rate than the number of offenders.

Q: What has changed?

The data backs up perceptions that there is a small group of young people who are each committing more and – often – violent crimes.

There was rioting in Parkville again on the weekend.
There was rioting in Parkville again on the weekend. Photo: Luis Ascui

Eight years ago, 17 per cent of offenders aged under 25 had three or more offences against their name. In 2015-16, this rose to 22 per cent.

The other big change seems to be the enthusiasm for two particular types of crime – car-jackings and aggravated burglaries – among young people.

Riot police and dog handlers were called to the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre in Parkville on Sunday.
Riot police and dog handlers were called to the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre in Parkville on Sunday.  Photo: ABC News

While car-jackings are still not counted as a separate offence, the number of motor vehicle thefts coinciding with burglaries – which police said was the most reliable way of understanding car-jackings –- went from 95 in 2014-15 to 171 in 2015-16.

On Thursday, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Andrew Crisp said there had been a three-fold increase in the number of young people arrested for aggravated burglaries in the past year.

A Domino's Pizza deliveryman delivers an order to the centre on Monday aternoon.
A Domino’s Pizza deliveryman delivers an order to the centre on Monday aternoon. Photo: Justin McManus

The crime problem is certainly getting worse in Greater Dandenong, the area that’s home to much of the “Apex” problem.

In the past financial year, the number of offences committed there per 100,000 residents rose by 16.6 per cent.

Even so, Greater Dandenong was the fifth most crime-affected local government area, trailing after Melbourne, Latrobe, Yarra and Horsham.

Q: So what can authorities do with young people who seem to have no regard for the law?

Because of the mandated privacy about children’s court cases, we just do not know whether the young people rioting in Parkville and Malmsbury are the same people behind recent car-jackings and aggravated burglaries.

And while the government and opposition talk tough, Liana Buchanan, the state’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, says it’s important to remember that many if not most of the young people responsible for the rioting come from damaged backgrounds and have been subjected to neglect, abuse or trauma.

“Among the experts I think there’s consensus that a more punitive approach doesn’t work with these kids,” she said.

“The evidence is clear that an approach that’s going to the heart of their offending is going to work.”

Ms Buchanan would have the government look at putting money into early intervention, intensive case management and clinical assistance, including trauma-led treatment.

“The numbers of youth offenders is dropping; the reality is that this massive concern about a youth crime wave is exaggerated.”

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