SPEAKING ON A BILL | CHILDREN AND JUSTICE LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (YOUTH JUSTICE REFORM) BILL 2017

Mr MELHEM (Western Metropolitan) — I rise to speak on the Children and Justice Legislation Amendment (Youth Justice Reform) Bill 2017. This bill has been introduced to propose some changes to the way our justice system operates and tackle some recent events that are confronting our youth, but also it is important to note that recently there has been some dramatic reduction in the number of children and young people sentenced each year by the Children’s Court. However, it is a small group of young people who enter the criminal justice system early and reoffend more often, and that has become a major problem.

The Andrews Labor government is committed to reforming the youth justice system to enhance the protection of the community by ensuring the courts have the tools to deal with serious young offenders. We want to make it clear that offending and reoffending is not acceptable. A few days ago the Andrews Labor government accepted a report which was the first comprehensive independent review of Victoria’s youth justice system in 17 years to help strengthen and modernise Victoria’s youth justice system. That report was commissioned in mid‑2016.

Minister Mikakos announced an initial investment of $50 million over four years to respond to the review’s priority recommendation, and the government accepts in principle the 126 recommendations from this report. The initial investment will implement 42 recommendations of the report, and we will be working on the other 63 recommendations which are on the way. Investment will support a new custodial operating model to better manage young people in custody and greater workforce capability by providing better training and a targeted recruitment campaign, 21 additional safety and emergency response team members and also address Aboriginal over‑representation by employing additional Aboriginal liaison officers.

One of the areas the legislation will deal with, which has become a trend in the last year and a half, is where we have adults using children to commit crimes. The bill will introduce a new offence in order to address that problem, particularly in relation to more experienced criminals. In many cases these adult criminals do not participate in the crimes at all but enrich themselves on the proceeds of these crimes.

We have seen that time and time again where these adults hide behind closed doors. They use these vulnerable kids — the overwhelming majority of them are under the age of 18, a large number of them are somewhere between the ages of 13 and 15 — they prey on these kids and they get them to go and commit a crime, whether it is a house burglary or carjacking. In committing a crime the logic is ‘If you commit that crime, we’ll pay you a bit of money; you’re not likely to get serious jail time’, but these adult criminals hiding in their homes and behind closed doors get the full benefit out of that crime, but they do not do the time because these kids end up doing the time.

To address this issue the bill will create a new offence of recruiting a child to engage in criminal activity. This offence will target people aged 21 years or older who benefit financially from a child’s offending and will be punishable by a maximum of 10 years imprisonment. I think that is a very important matter. People talk about the Apex gang, for example. We all know these people were organised by some serious criminals in our society, and they were all adults. They used these young kids to basically go and commit crimes. I want to thank and acknowledge the good work done by Victoria Police to dismantle that particular gang. They have done a great job. Most of these people are now behind bars, particularly some of the ringleaders. If this bill passes, there will be a new offence so we can deal with these serious criminals. Hopefully we keep them away from these kids, because at the end of the day we need to make sure that kids are looked after to make sure they do not offend in the first place. If they do offend, we need to make sure mechanisms are put in place to make sure they do not reoffend and are not used by adults to go and commit a crime on the basis that the adults do not want to get caught but are happy to get the benefit out of these children.

The bill will also increase the consequences for serious youth offending. It will create two categories of offences to reflect their seriousness. Category A offences deal with murder, attempted murder, arson causing death, culpable driving causing death, manslaughter, child homicide, causing serious injury intentionally in circumstances of gross violence, commonwealth terrorism offences, aggravated home invasion and aggravated carjacking. Category B offences deal with areas like rape, rape by compelling sexual penetration, causing serious injury recklessly in circumstances of gross violence, home invasion and carjacking.

The bill obviously also provides for dual‑track sentencing. The dual‑track system will allow adult courts in certain circumstances to sentence young offenders aged 18 to 21 years to a custodial sentence in a youth detention facility rather than an adult prison. The bill will limit the ability for serious young offenders aged between 18 and 21 years to be sentenced to a period of detention in a youth justice facility. Where an offender is convicted of a category A offence or a category B offence after having previously been convicted of a category A or B offence, the option of youth detention will no longer be available as a right. Instead, if a custodial sentence is imposed, it must be served in an adult jail unless the court is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist.

The bill will also make it a requirement that the court will need to give consideration to community safety in sentencing. The bill creates a new sentencing option called a youth control order that will offer intensive monitoring and supervision of young offenders who would otherwise be sentenced to detention. I think it is very important to be able to monitor what these kids are doing. As I said earlier, number one is seeing if you can prevent the crime from occurring in the first place, but should one of these young people commit a crime, we need to make sure we have enough tools in place to make sure they do not go and reoffend. That youth control order will go a long way to try to achieve that.

The other area the bill addresses is the increased consequences for young people who assault custodial officers. We know this has been an issue not just in Victoria but in New South Wales, where youth go and assault staff. That is an area the government is taking very seriously. As I said, it is not just unique to Victoria; the New South Wales youth justice system is facing similar circumstances. This bill will now look at strengthening some of the laws we have in place to make sure that these youth will be told in no uncertain terms that, should they continue to go and assault staff, then they will be dealt with, and they will be dealt with properly.

A detainee aged 18 years or over sentenced for causing serious injury recklessly against a youth justice custodial worker will be sentenced to a minimum of two years imprisonment for that offence. There will be higher statutory minimum sentences applied for the more serious offences of causing serious injury intentionally or of causing serious injury recklessly or intentionally in circumstances of gross violence.

For detainees under 18 the bill creates a presumption that any sentence of detention for assaulting a custodial worker while in custody will be served cumulatively on any other period of detention. That should be used as a deterrent to basically say to these young kids, ‘If you commit another crime while you’re in custody, that will be added to whatever sentence you’re already serving’. Hopefully that will be a further deterrent to these kids to make sure that they do not go and assault the people who are there to look after them. These workers are entitled to go to work and go home safely without being subjected to an assault by these young people.

The bill also talks about tougher penalties for escaping and the youth diversion program which we put in place. More importantly, it is important that we go and give the resources to our police to be able to do their job and give the tools to our judges to be able to apply the correct sentences. It is also about making sure we have enough diversion programs and training, rehabilitation and education for these kids to make sure they do not reoffend.

More importantly, adults who actually go and groom these kids to commit the crime in the first place are the ones who should be the number one target. They are the ones who should be locked up and locked up forever, because they are the true criminals. They should be locked up, not just the young kids, because most of these young kids are vulnerable. Unfortunately in many cases they are unable to find a job or they come from broken families. They are unable to go to school for whatever reason, and then they are preyed on by these adult criminals. I think they should be dealt with harshly.

Hence the government is investing resources and investing money as well to make sure all the resources are put in place and, referring to what Minister Mikakos announced a few days ago, also building the super‑maximum custodial centre in Werribee. I think it is very important to actually invest in a purpose‑built facility to make sure all the resources are put in place to make sure that when the custodial officers go to work it is safe for them to go to work and they have the ability to deal safely with these inmates who decide to go and wreck the joint, as they did previously, because this facility was not built properly to deal with these difficult cases.

So I commend the government for making the decision, biting the bullet and investing in a maximum‑security facility in Werribee. I think it is very important. The New South Wales government is looking at doing something similar to what the Victorian government has already announced. I know there is a lot of work that needs to be done in this space, and a lot of things have been said about youth crime in Victoria over the last 12 to 18 months, but what I can say is there is a record investment by this government to address this issue.

I think it is very important for both sides of politics to stop playing politics with this issue. We need to make sure we focus on the real solution and on eliminating the problem. I think the government is doing that, and I think we should take a bipartisan approach, not play petty politics. This issue did not just occur suddenly in the last year or two. It has been an ongoing issue. It is an issue in New South Wales. It is an issue across the board. Let us not go and play politics. Let us focus on finding the solution. I think this legislation will go a long way towards addressing that problem. I am pleased that the crime figures are going down, that they are not going up. Hopefully we will get some dividend, we will continue to improve safety for the custodial workers who work in our prison system and we will make sure the rate of youth offending in this state goes down, not up. I am confident that with these changes we will achieve that result. With those comments I recommend the bill to the house.

8 August 2017