Queenslanders and victims of crime can rest easy. We’ve been spared from a blight upon our justice system, court referrals to Youth Justice Conferences (YJCs), which thanks to the hard work of Jarrod Bleijie, the Queensland Attorney General, are to be discontinued.
YJCs are a widely-practiced restorative justice technique that involves young offenders meeting their victims in the presence of their family and support people, and making a legally-binding commitment about how they can repair the harm they have caused. 1691 court referrals made up 57 per cent of the YJC caseload in 2011-12, so ending them will significantly reduce the reach of this program and see 65 staff sacked.
But, according to Bleijie, YJCs are to be stopped by popular demand:
"Queenslanders did not particularly like the fact that the offender had the opportunity to sit in with the victim and try to sort it all out. We will always stick up for the victim’s rights above and beyond the offender’s rights — that is the philosophy of this government."
I wonder which Queenslanders Bleijie has been consulting? Thousands of YJCs have been held in Queensland and participants have completed an evaluation form after every single one. According to the most recent figures from the Children’s Court of QLD annual report (pdf), "There was a very high level of satisfaction from participants (98 per cent indicated that the conference was fair and with being satisfied with the agreement)".
These figures include victim feedback, which casts doubt upon Bleijie’s claim to be sticking up for victims.
Criminologist Dr Heather Strang has noted that, "victims worldwide… want a less formal process in which they can participate and their experience of victimisation be taken seriously". YJCs offer that, giving victims an important speaking role and the power to make a decision about how the offender can make amends. This contrasts sharply with Children’s Court, which is a closed court where victims are not even present in the vast majority of cases.
Offenders, on the other hand, can be considerably more reluctant to participate in YJCs. At the launch of the Brisbane chapter of Restorative Practices International a couple of weeks ago, Judge John Robertson of the Queensland District Court told stories of extremely reluctant offenders who would much rather deal with, "the old wheels of the criminal justice system", than explain their actions directly to the person they harmed. Including one young man who skipped bail rather than face his victim.
Bleijie’s characterisation of YJCs as a soft option for offenders that neglects victims is at odds with reality. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. He has other arguments (pdf) to justify taking the axe to such a successful program:
"Well, it obviously ain’t working because we have got such a high reoffending rate of young people. Mr Chair, this is the problem with the Labor Party. The Labor Party set all these programs up and they did not work, but they just continued them for the sake of continuing them…"
Far be it from me to leap to the defense of the Labor Party, especially given that YJC was introduced by the conservative Borbidge Government in its 1996 amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act 1992.
On the more substantive charge of YJC being responsible for a high rate of recidivism in Queensland, the Attorney General seems to be relying on figures from a Courier Mail report from last year that don’t tell us anything about whether youth recidivism is getting better or worse or what might be responsible in either case.
But on youth offending rates generally in Queensland, the Children’s Court figures tell us:
"There was a 15.2 per cent decrease in the number of young people coming before the Childrens Court of Queensland, and a 20.0 per cent decrease in those appearing before the District Court. The number of juveniles dealt with by the Supreme Court also decreased by 64.3 per cent."
So don’t despair; we’re not in the grip of a youth crime wave just yet.
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research analysis (pdf) suggests YJC has about the same impact on recidivism as court does. If courts can no longer divert young offenders to YJCs, they will simply sentence them with no consequent reduction in recidivism. The LNP’s only alternative youth justice policy seems to be boot camps that will only be available at two pilot locations for the next two years, so they will be of small use to most offenders.
Cost also hardly justifies the cut. In New South Wales, which uses a more expensive model of YJC than Queensland because most court referrals return to court after the conference (whereas most do not in Queensland), "the average cost of a YJC was estimated to be about 18 per cent less (pdf) than the average cost of a comparable matter dealt with in the Children’s Court".
So on any fair analysis, it seems that the LNP is gutting a victim-oriented program with extraordinary levels of participant satisfaction, that is cheaper than court and just as effective at addressing recidivism. Good work Bleijie.
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