What Youth Justice does

Youth Justice is responsible for the statutory supervision of young people in the criminal justice system in Victoria. This includes children as young as 10 years old, young people aged 15 to 18, through to young adults up to 24 years of age who may serve their sentence in Youth Justice as part of Victoria’s unique ‘dual track’ system for young adults.

Children and young people involved in Youth Justice are either supervised in the community, by community youth justice workers located at Justice Service Centres across seven regions in Victoria, or within custodial services.

Youth Justice funds organisations that deliver supports and interventions to children and young people in both the community and custody to assist with their rehabilitation efforts. Youth Justice also partners with the Department of Education and Training to deliver education services to support children and young people to engage with education.

Children and young people involved with Youth Justice

The rate of youth offender incidents in Victoria has fallen almost 35 per cent since the year ending March 2010. Over the same period, the number of alleged youth offender incidents has also fallen by more than 26 per cent.

This is evident in the reduction in the number of young people supervised by Youth Justice year-on-year, which is down by more than 20 per cent in the community and 15 per cent across the system during the past five years. This reflects the well-established focus on diversion.

Despite this reduction, there remain on average around 718 children and young people in Youth Justice on an average day. Most of these young people are supervised in the community.

A very small proportion of young people are in Youth Justice custodial services on any given night. This group of children and young people have often committed serious offences, or they have a history of offending and most likely have complex needs.

Children and young people’s involvement in the criminal justice system as a proportion of all children and young people in Victoria aged 10 to 17 years in 2017–18:

  • 585,000 in Victoria
  • 7,410 processed by police
  • 2,364 found guilty of a criminal charge
  • 718 in Youth Justice on an average day
  • 128 in custody on an average day.

On an average day in Youth Justice, 18 per cent of young people identify as Aboriginal, 39 per cent identify as culturally and linguistically diverse Australians and 44 per cent identify as non-Aboriginal Australian.

Young people in Youth Justice also have complex backgrounds and circumstances and intersecting needs.

Characteristics of children and young people in Youth Justice:

  • 53% were a victim of abuse, trauma or neglect as a child
  • 41% either have a current child protection case or were previously subject to a child protection order
  • 49% present with mental health issues
  • 42% have been witness to family violence
  • 52% have a history of alcohol and drug use
  • 21% live in unsafe or unstable housing
  • 31% present with cognitive difficulties that impact on daily functioning
  • 4% are NDIS participants.

The evidence on youth offending

The Victorian criminal justice system, like other Australian and international jurisdictions, responds to children and young people differently to adults.

This is based on evidence about the differences in the causes and trajectories of youth offending and an understanding of adolescent brain development. Children and young people also have greater potential to rehabilitate and all have inherent strengths that can be built on to support them to live positive, prosocial lives.

Children and young people’s development

Adolescent brains do not fully develop until young people are well into their early 20s. This means that children and young people have a greater capacity for rehabilitation and change.

However, it also means they have less capacity to understand the consequences of their decisions, and less ability to regulate their emotions.

Legally, immaturity in adolescent brain development is recognised as a factor that affects youth offending. This is because children and young people lack the insight, judgment and self-control of a rational adult.

This, combined with an increased susceptibility to peer influence, means children and young people are more likely to engage in risky behaviour and come to the attention of police and the criminal justice system.

Those children and young people also often experience complex and intersecting issues at much higher rates than found in the general community.

These issues can include socioeconomic disadvantage disrupted education, unstable housing, disengagement from the community, alcohol and drug misuse, violent or abusive family environments, physical or intellectual impairment, poor health and mental health, or a history of contact with child protection and out-of-home care.

These experiences can have a significant influence on a child or young person’s risk of committing crime, and on their successful rehabilitation.

This means that we must provide services that are coordinated and interconnected to support children and young people’s rehabilitation and reduce their risk of reoffending.

Young people who offend generally grow out of offending behaviour

Most children and young people in the community do not offend.

Those who do offend often engage in low-level antisocial behaviour that they grow out of naturally as they mature, with little or no criminal justice intervention. Some level of intervention may be required, but it should be limited.

Evidence shows that these young people typically do not go on to offend as adults. Disproportionate interventions at this point increase the risk a young person will become entrenched in the criminal justice system.

There is, however, a small but high-impact proportion of children and young people who have early and ongoing contact with the criminal justice system. Children and young people in this cohort commit serious offences and reoffend more often.

This means that Youth Justice resources must be targeted at the young people who are most likely to persist in offending behaviour and to cause the most harm to the community.

To do this effectively, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of what causes this behaviour, and to tailor interventions that target those causes.

The youth justice system must also support young people to take responsibility for their behaviour and the harm caused to victims and the community, and promote community safety.

The current context

The past few years have been a period of significant change and transformation for Youth Justice in Victoria. The Armytage Ogloff review provided insights into what works, what needs to change, and what values should underpin a future youth justice system.

At its heart, the review recognised the need for a different approach to Youth Justice, achieved through a differential response to working with young people. It recommends focusing on age-appropriate responses and remaining conscious of the evidence on youth offending. The review sets out ways to improve on many fronts. This strategic plan focuses on four main opportunities.

1. Improving the approach to diversion and early intervention

This provides the greatest opportunity to address youth crime. Currently, most young people do not progress into Youth Justice due to diversionary initiatives at different points in the system – for example, when they are in contact with police and the courts. We can strengthen diversion and early intervention by identifying why a young person is offending and putting a plan in place to address this at the earliest opportunity. These efforts would focus on keeping children and young people in the community, close to school, family, culture and recreation, where rehabilitation is more effective.

2. Using tailored rehabilitation efforts that address a child or young person’s assessed risks and needs and support them to reduce offending

The new case management framework will help to ensure a consistent, evidence-based approach for every child and young person. We need to build the capability of the workforce to bring this to life and put in place the right interventions to target the causes of offending.

3. Enhancing and formalising partnerships between Youth Justice and other services to improve rehabilitation and life outcomes

Addressing the different and diverse needs of children and young people in Youth Justice can only be successful if there is a unified effort across services and professionals, in an environment where professionals are encouraged to learn from each other. We need to involve young people and families more in the decisions that affect them, and to improve multidisciplinary rehabilitation efforts.

4. Improving end-to-end career support for the Youth Justice workforce

Youth Justice workers are the key drivers of change for children and young people, and they deserve to feel supported and safe at work. We need to improve recruitment and retention, and focus on professional learning and development. We also need to embed a culture of sharing practice and learning from each other, and to ensure we are providing a safe custodial operating environment for our workers and children and young people.