A few weeks ago I sent Victoria’s Attorney-General Robert Clark a link to a fascinating development in US conservative political circles. It is a movement called Right on Crime, which is sponsored by right-wing “hang-’em-high” politicians who are now unravelling the damage that mandatory jail terms for young and other vulnerable groups of offenders has had on the social and economic fabric of the US in the past two decades. To his credit, Clark responded the same day and told me the link was “useful and interesting”.
Clark’s announcement yesterday that he wants to introduce a mandatory two-year minimum sentence in a youth detention facility for 16- and 17-year-olds found guilty of recklessly causing serious injury and intentionally causing serious injury when committed with ”gross violence” is exactly the sort of measure that movements such as Right on Crime are dedicated to re-examining in the US.
While Clark is happy to send more young people to prison, in Texas — yes hard-core, conservative Texas — Republican governor Rick Perry has joined with Democrats a fortnight ago to pass a law that will close three of the state’s 10 youth detention centres and put the savings into rehabilitation. It costs about $A270 to house youth offenders in prisons in Texas but only $A70 to have them participate in a structured program of rehabilitation and support. No wonder fiscal conservatives in Texas love it.
Texas is not the only American state that it turning its back on locking up young offenders. In New York, mayor Michael Bloomberg and the state’s new governor Andrew Cuomo have announced initiatives aimed at reducing incarceration rates for juvenile offenders.
There is a realisation in the US that, as Anthony Barkow, a former senior prosecutor put it recently, “juvenile offenders have diminished culpability: a view supported by science — and common sense, as anyone can attest to who remembers his or her years as a teenager”. Placing them behind bars, irrespective of the circumstances of each case and without having regard to their mental capacity at the time of offending, is simply a recipe for higher recidivism rates on release and the high cost to taxpayers that goes with that and the incarceration.
As someone who works with juvenile offenders and who sits on the Tasmanian government’s Youth Justice Advisory Group, I can vouch for the validity of the emerging US trend and Barkow’s observation. Young people who commit offences of violence are generally intoxicated, high on drugs, and often have an acquired brain injury or relatively undiagnosed mental illness. Jailing them, even in a youth detention facility, deprives them of access to the services they need in regular and large doses — mental health, education and skilling, and strong peer and mentoring support.
Clark should examine closely the US trends before he commits Victoria to a policy that will cost a mint, fail to reduce youth crime and to the shame of our society fail our young people.
*Greg Barns is a director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance and is a member of the Tasmanian government’s Youth Justice Advisory Committee.