HSV Public Lecture by Glen McClure, Brosnan Youth Services, at Balwyn Library on 24 October 2013
Brosnan Services, a program of Jesuit Social Services, has been running a Youth Justice Group Conference Program since 2003. Other agencies, such as Anglicare and Barwon Health, also assist young offenders in this way. Group conferencing is an option backed up by legislation (s. 414, Children, Youth and Families Act 2005), giving it authenticity in the eyes of the offenders, lawyers and police. Brosnan Services work with about 120 young people each year through this program, but would like to have the resources for many more. The program reduces recidivism, or re-offending, and helps the offender to re-engage with the community more constructively.
Children’s Court Magistrates use the option of group conferencing for young people who have committed moderately serious crimes, such as assault or car stealing, but only if they have pleaded guilty to the offence. Less serious crimes may be dealt with by placing the young person on a good-behavior bond, and more serious ones, such as homicide or manslaughter, warrant a custodial sentence.
The case is adjourned and the young offender interviewed by the Court advisory worker to assess his or her suitability to participate in a group conference. Factors taken into account include the young person’s interpersonal skills, intellectual capacity, any mental health or drug and alcohol issues and any relevant cultural aspects. It is not compulsory for the offender to agree to participate in group conferencing, and all negotiations stop if there is opposition or a lack of acceptance of responsibility for the crime.
It usually takes eight to twelve weeks to organize a conference. Among those invited to attend are the victim and their family or supporting people, the offender and their family members, the police who have been involved with the case, counsellors who know the offender and teachers who have a link. It is mandatory for a lawyer to be present but not in an adversarial role, rather to ensure that the young person’s human rights are protected. The victim is not obliged to attend and about sixty per cent do not. However, all victims are referred to the Victim Support Agency within the Department of Justice and are seen by a counsellor. If the victim decides not to attend, the counsellor presents a prepared statement on their behalf.
The preparation for a conference is very detailed and time-consuming. There are discussions with each of the participants, alerting them to likely questions and outcomes. The conference takes about two hours. The participants sit in a circle. The victim is placed next to a police member for support, and the offender sits opposite, so that direct eye contact is encouraged. The flow and direction of the conference is controlled by the convener from Brosnan Services. It is fairly informal, compared with a Court, but nonetheless structured to cover key areas, such as:
- what happened during the crime incident,
- a detailed discussion about how each person was affected,
- an outcome plan to which all contribute.
It is the convener’s job to ensure that a safe environ-ment exists. The atmosphere is often highly charged emotionally. Victims may confront the offender with information about the consequences of the crime, such as health issues, marital breakdown and other stresses. The victim is likely to learn about the background of the offender. Other participants may contribute information about changes made by the young person since the crime. There is an open demonstration of remorse and forgiveness.
After the conference the convener prepares a three-to-four-thousand-word report for the Magistrate. It is not a transcript but an account that summarises the interactions and indicates whether the young offender has gained insight or has shown remorse and empathy. It also describes the outcome plan which was proposed during the conference. This usually addresses areas that will reduce the likelihood of re-offending and may include such recommendations as volunteer work or other ways of making amends, changing schools or other options for developing new relationships and re-engaging with the community and new peer groups.
The young person then returns to Court for sentencing and the Magistrate is able to use the report in making a decision. Participation in group conferencing frequently results in a more lenient sentence as well as better outcomes all round. In 2010 the Victorian government doubled the funding for the program and KPMG were engaged to review the program. Their data for a two-year study period showed that the recidivism rate for conference participants was 18%, compared with 42% for a control group of young people who had committed similar offences but without access to conferencing. This meant that the program was efficient cost-wise. More importantly, at a personal level, there was widespread satisfaction expressed by the victims who had been part of the process.
The program is still underfunded and limited in its reach. Not all Magistrates are familiar with it and some lawyers object to the delay it causes. Koorie Courts run on a similar basis, with some community input. However they tend to focus on blame rather than negotiation. Also, many schools are now prepared to
use a restorative justice model to tackle issues such as bullying and abuse, following the essential features of the model – address the problem, resolve the harm and negotiate a plan for moving forward.
For more information, visit the Youth Justice Group Conferencing web site.
Report by Jennie Stuart