News focus: Bridging the gap for youth offenders

Out of jail, desperate to change 

Brad* dreamed of playing in the AFL, he wanted to emulate the success of his footy heroes. He dropped out of school at the end of year 8, but was still kicking goals. 

Then his dad died. By the time he was 17 Brad’s life was aimless. He woke up and kicked around every day. He started smoking a few joints, then he found heroin. 

His world became a chaotic mess of drugs. He stole cars to drive. He stole items to sell so he could buy drugs. 

“I sort of stopped playing footy after my dad passed away,” Brad said.

“I felt lost, confused, I didn’t know how to deal with it because I was pretty young ... I was like 17. (I tried) weed to start off and moved on to the heavier stuff.

“(It affected me) mentally, socially. I lost connection with my mum, she was really disappointed in me. She didn’t know what to do or how to help and I didn’t really want help.” 

Brad was taking heroin and ice every day. He dabbled in car theft to support his habit and to try to cope. But he wanted an escape – stealing cars was his way.

“(I’d steal cars) to escape, to get away. Just to drive to Melbourne to see my sister or stay with friends,” Brad said.

He would dump those cars all around the state. 

Brad then moved beyond car theft. His offending became more serious – he became involved in assault and armed robbery.

He never thought about his victims at the time. He was under the influence of “drugs and in my own bubble”. He was hanging out with people who did drugs and stole cars. That lifestyle became normal.

“I was chasing the next hit (I got money) from stealing shit,” Brad said.

Brad had been charged by police before, but eventually his serial offending of increasing severity caught up with. He was nabbed. 

“I felt relief,” Brad said. 

“Because I thought it would get me out of the trap I was in, I was happy I got caught. I was scared, but also relieved.” 

Brad spent nearly two years in prison. He is currently on parole serving a three-year CCO.

Brad has been out for some time.

Brad is involved in the YMCA Bridge Project. He wants to get a job so his young child can look up to him and be proud of him. He wants to help support his new partner who has been there for him every step of the way.

“(My life is now focused on) being successful, I’ve been clean since day dot ... since I got locked up,” Brad said.

“To remain drug-free and to help myself, getting employment and giving back to the community and to the right thing to help people in my situation.”

“For me, with the drugs, I lost everything. My son. I had no connection with my family. I lost myself, I could’ve ended up dead. Being incarcerated I could think clearly and I found myself again and what I wanted to do.

“For me, it’s like when you’re a kid, if you go touch a hot pot you are not going to touch it again because it’s  hot – I’ve learnt I’m not going to do the same things that I’ve done, because it did nothing for me. 

“I didn’t benefit from it, I destroyed myself and my family and friends and I don’t want to hurt the people I love again.” 

The YMCA Bridge Project has given Brad a better outlook on life. He now knows there is more to kicking around. He wants to get a job – something that is not only possible, but a priority.

Thomas* didn’t start offending until later in life. His life started off shaky – he grew up in Housing Commission homes, but he was determined to make something of himself. He left home at 14, but started and completed a plastering apprenticeship. By 22 he ran a successful business and owned a home. 

One day a mate offered him a hit of ice. He took it and felt on top of the world. 

“Before I knew it I was well and truly hooked on it,” Thomas said.

“It takes that cloud off your head. It broadened your mind ... I went from (taking it) once every weekend to every day, and then I started dealing it.” 

Thomas’ first offence was dealing drugs.

“It was easier to do that, I could make more money doing that, then I could getting up every morning and going to work,” Thomas said.

He stopped speaking to his family. He was having the “time of his life” – stopped working, had loads of cash and then he got caught.

Thomas went to prison. He got out, fell back into drugs and went back inside.  He has been out since last year and doesn’t want to go back. 

“Once I got out, I still had all the contacts from before and it was easy just to get back,” Thomas said.

It’s a lot harder to get a job, be involved in YMCA Bridge Project and stay clean than it was to deal drugs, Thomas said. But he knows it is the right thing. 

“The drug life is no good for you mentally – you are always worried about what is going on, you’re always watching your back,” he said.

If Thomas hadn’t tried ice that fateful day he may have had a family, owned three houses and maintained his business, he said.

With The YMCA Bridge Project Thomas’ confidence is improving.That job is in reach. Now he is with other guys who are all determined to turn their lives around – the lure of drugs or easy cash won’t stop them.

Brad has one strong belief: everyone deserves a second chance. *Names changed.

Bridging the opportunity gap 

YOUNG people who have committed crimes, often fuelled by a cocktail of drugs, are regularly sentenced for offences of varying severity. 

They might have stolen a car, or burgled a house. They are given Community Correction Orders (CCO), some are incarcerated. They serve time, but eventually they are released. What's stopping them from re-offending?

Luke Moodie works through the YMCA  Bridge Project, run in partnership with Corrections Victoria. He usually works with young offenders who have to complete the two-week program as part of their order or parole conditions. 

When Luke meets them they are disgruntled and don’t want to be there. But Luke wants to give these guys a second chance.

“We deal in education, we look to move guys into employment and further education. We are all about giving them a second chance,” Luke said. 

The guys are taught life skills – a bit of sport, confidence boosting, how to write a resume, general health and well-being. 

“It covers different topics like goal setting, conflict resolution, resume writing, job interview preparation.

“(We teach them) those soft skills that most people take for granted. What we are trying to do is improve their ability to help themselves.”

It sounds basic – but this project is a bridge back into the workforce and normality. The participants are referred through corrections and all have criminal records.

“We try to identify the positive things they have going in their life – they just need a second chance and bit of guidance. They are cracking guys that just need an opportunity,” Luke said.

“The stigma attached to being on an order makes being given an  opportunity hard sometimes. 

“It’s breaking cycles within families that have a culture of offending within their families, it’s about breaking those cycles – bad influences, hanging around with the wrong people and just drugs, drugs and alcohol. 

“We want to impact not only on the participants themselves but their family, partners and children. We want them to take a bit of ownership and direction as to where they are heading.”

The ultimate aim is to for the participants to get a job. To achieve this goal, YMCA Bridge Project must have support from employers.

Ballarat Acting Detective Senior Sergeant Jo Janes said programs like YMCA Bridge Project could really reduce the risk of re-offending. 

“(Many young offenders) don’t go to school or have work experiences; they feel trapped and vulnerable,” Acting Detective Senior Sergeant Janes said.

“The whole community needs to embrace our youth and support them. 

Employees who want to help call 0431 609 009.

Disengaged youth – no way out of crime

IMAGINE thinking crime and the dole were the only opportunities in your life. That going to university, studying or getting full time employment were out of your reach.

YMCA Ballarat chief executive Kate Phillips is determined to stop young people in Ballarat from being forced into that mindset. 

The statistics are there. Half of all crime in Ballarat is committed by young people under 25, even more worrying is that most of that crime is committed by the same offenders, who are picked up by police and continue to commit offences. 

“(Many of these young people) Don’t understand what’s possible, “ Ms Phillips said.

“(They think) that’s just not their lot in life. We want to teach them they have the right to the same opportunities as any one else.

“In a different environment we know that can really catapult that person into an incredible life where they won’t be linked to crime.”

All agencies say there is a desperate need for greater job opportunities in Ballarat. Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton has said a hard core of disengaged youth who find it “easier to steal than work are at the heart of offending”. 

He said a lack of job opportunities and education engagement were key drivers of youth crime.

“We are finding we are arresting the same young people again and again and again,” Mr Ashton said.

“For them it’s easier to steal than work.” 

Through the YMCA services young people are taught that having a job is a “game changer”.

“It’s crucial …  it provides the incentive to not re-offend. It provides an environment with great role models and that peer support which has sometimes been lacking,” Ms Phillips said.