Stopping the slide of youth before it is too late

The definition of madness may be to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome but there must be no more maddening frustration in Ballarat’s criminal justice system than hoping repeat offenders will reform themselves and ‘fly straight.’ This Sisyphean cycle must drive police, lawyers and welfare workers alike to a point of mechanical despair. Nowhere is this more troubling and having more infuriating consequences for the community than in the small number of  recidivist youth offenders who on a dreary journey of repetition made up of the same cheap thrills and petty crimes come back to court again and again.

The failure of the justice message to change behaviour makes it tempting, particularity for armchair experts and keyboard warriors, to roll out the same trite outrage about wrists slapped and wet lettuce but few have any real comprehension of the complexities of the problem. Perhaps most troubling is that these offenders, generally products of low education, family dysfunction, stunted imagination and worse aspiration along with poor association are potentially the serious criminals of the future unless a circuit breaker can be found.

The obvious first response to juvenile crime, get them off the streets, solves little unless it keeps them of the street for good – either by locking them up permanently (hardly an option) or redirecting them from a purposeless life. The knee-jerk mob call to “lock em all up” appeases the outrage of perceived community threat but does little in the way of rehabilitation and long term solutions. The frequent failure of the juvenile justice system to redirect this misspsent energy and the problematic reality that punitive and custodial sentences for young offenders often means simply putting them into worse company to learn worse criminal practices, can’t be ignored. If the world’s largest prison population in the United States has taught us anything it is that this seemingly easy response does not lower the crime rate, raises the recidivist rate and creates whole sub-populations of desperation.

Finding a circuit breaker, if we are to save a lot more lives from this ruin, and even more public money, must come in preventative steps.​ There is no doubt the community deserves protection form dangerous activity and the police targeting the small group of the worst offenders is a great strategic use of resources but what we do now for the high-risk kids will shape the the kind of future we will live in.