To the tune of “One night in Bangkok”, there’s a saying amongst criminal lawyers which goes ‘one night in juvi means a life in prison.’
And the evidence bears this out.
A young person who has been in juvenile detention is over 50 per cent more likely to be inside again within two years. And a shocking 70 per cent of those young people inside are likely to end up in adult prison.
This is not the life you would wish for any child.
But there is something happening in the small town of Bourke in north-west NSW which may turn statistics such as these around.
Police, service providers, government funders and locals are joining hands and lending their commitment to the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project.
Maranguka was the birth child of the Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party, a grassroots coalition of concerned local Aboriginal residents who wanted to see positive change in their community.
Translated as ‘caring for others’, the Maranguka proposal they developed is a vision for Aboriginal community empowerment.
“It’s all about doing things differently,” says Alistair Ferguson, Chair of the Aboriginal Community Working Party.
Alistair is a born and bred local who after a stellar career returned home a few years ago to see about ‘fixing up this mess’.
“Too many of my community were being locked up. Kids were being taken away. Families were being shattered, again and again,” he said.
“And this was happening despite the huge amount of money government was channelling through the large number of service organisations in this town.”
“So we started talking together.”
“We decided that a new way of thinking and doing things needed to be developed that helped our children.
‘We decided it was time for our community to move beyond the existing service delivery model,’ said Alistair, ‘a model which had clearly failed.’
“The Maranguka proposal captures this through its clear focus on creating better coordinated support to vulnerable families and children in Bourke.”
“We decided to do this through community-led teams working in partnership with existing service providers, so that together we can look at what’s happening in our town and why Aboriginal disadvantage is not improving, and together we can build a new accountability framework which doesn’t let our kids slip through.”
“And then we heard about justice reinvestment and it was like all the stars suddenly aligned.”
Justice Reinvestment is new to Australia but has been a concept in operation in the US for some twenty years.
It’s about taking money out of prisons and reinvesting it into communities where crime is occurring; a fiscal model aiming at safer communities and reduced incarceration rates at less cost to government than current practices.
Compared to twenty years ago, Australia’s crime rates have dropped but our prison population has grown, exponentially for Aboriginal people.
In NSW alone, Aboriginal people represent only 2 per cent of NSW’s population but make up around one quarter of the prison population.
Add to this the rate at which Aboriginal children are being taken from their families and placed in out-of-home care (1 in 3 in NSW or around 6,000 children), and it is obvious to any outsider that the state of NSW must think differently, quickly.
With more than a quarter of all the children in NSW juvenile prisons coming from care, there is a clear nexus between being taken away, juvenile detention and adult imprisonment.
This is not just a crisis in terms of the familial, social, educational, cultural and spiritual costs against Aboriginal children. The economics of taking children away and setting them up for homelessness and poor educational and working outcomes, and for many a life in prison, cannot surely be a sustainable option for the state of NSW.
Alistair is the Executive Officer of the new Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Backbone team.
Funded through philanthropic interests, his team are focused on preparing a watertight case to government that justice reinvestment is a real solution to the problems of youth offending and incarceration.
“This is a community driven change process which is going to take a long time,” said Alistair.
“And without a blueprint for success, we’re taking a step by step approach of building further trust with community members, and key government funders and various stakeholders.”
Based in Sydney and a solicitor with Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), Sarah has been instrumental in attracting funding and government commitment to justice reinvestment in Bourke.
She has recently returned from a two day trip to Bourke accompanied by His Honour Judge Johnston, President of the Children’s Court.
“Judge Johnston is really supportive of looking at innovative ways of keeping young people out of the criminal justice system and detention,” says Sarah.
In Bourke, they addressed a “really well-attended” community meeting with community members, government and non-government organisation representatives.
“We discussed the circuit breaker proposals,” says Sarah.
“We want to roll them out from February 2015 as a means of doing something in the short term that’s really practical to immediately benefit Bourke’s young people who are in and out of trouble.”
The circuit breaker proposals were put together in the many community meetings held in Bourke over the last year, and are simply a number of community designed initiatives to immediately reduce the number of young people offending, coming before the courts, and going to juvenile detention.
“One of the circuit breakers is a driver licensing and crime prevention program and the initial idea for this one came from the local police in Bourke,” says Sarah.
“The police want options. They don’t always want to arrest a person pulled over for not having a driver’s licence. Instead they want to see them get a licence and be able to refer them to service that can help them with that.”
The idea stems from a 2009 report into crime prevention and driver licensing developed and written by the community.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” says Alistair.
“The community have been thinking for years about solutions to address the problems facing young people in Bourke.”
“What we’re doing is providing a platform from which the community can make those solutions a reality.”
With a number of circuit breakers on the table, the community have decided the warrant clinic will be the first circuit breaker to be implemented.
The premise of the warrant clinic is about identifying different pathways that benefit both the court and the individual.
The team have already garnered support for the clinic from the NSW Attorney-General, Judge Johnston, the local court magistrate and Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT).
“The idea here,” explains Sarah, “is that when a young person aged between say 10-25 years has a warrant out for their arrest for a less serious offence, rather than the usual process of arrest and being held in custody, we’ll arrange for them to come to the Aboriginal Legal Service office in Bourke.”
“There, a support team consisting of a youth worker, a juvenile justice or corrections officer, and a lawyer and field officer from the legal service will put together a personalised plan with that young person.”
“That plan will then accompany the young person to the court and will contain practical suggestions about what the court can do.”
“Further follow up will include involvement of the new Maranguka Family Referral Service.
“The Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Backbone team will then follow up participants to see how they’re going and will collect that really important local data which will eventually, we hope, convince government that justice reinvestment is a blueprint for major policy change.”
There is growing support and enthusiasm for Bourke’s Maranguka Justice Reinvestment project in government and non-government circles.
The Federal Attorney-General visited the Bourke community earlier in the year, the NSW Attorney-General last month, and Commissioners Megan Mitchell and particularly Mick Gooda from the Human Rights Commission have had an active involvement over the last couple of years.
Last week Steve Kimmon and Danny Lester, the newly appointed NSW Deputy Ombudsman for Aboriginal Programs who has been given the task of reviewing the NSW government’s new OCHRE strategy, were also part of the community meetings in Bourke.
Bourke is a Connected Community site under the NSW government’s OCHRE plan.
Sarah suggests the Ombudsman is especially interested in this project and how local decision making structures and stakeholder-community partnerships are working.
Front page image gratefully sourced from http://bit.ly/1biD87A