Juvenile criminality has always being a heatedly debated topic in the forum of the of the criminal justice system. Indeed it is a problem that extends far beyond its nominal scope. A junior offender inducted into the criminal justice system without reform may become a serious offender in the future. In the past, many cases where Juveniles offender has come into contact with the criminal justice process, there was neither reconciliation nor rehabilitation. Indeed this served as catalyst to further push the juvenile away from the path of the Good Samaritan.
The prevention of youth crime is important because criminality in youth often lead into more serious crimes and greater penalties if no prevention systems are put in place. In Australia youth crime represent one in four crimes responded to by police, (Cuneen, C. & White, R. 2002 Pg: 67) While only representing 4% of all serious offences, youth crime is still a prominent area of criminality, as they maintain the highest rate of re-offence, and youth crime is often committed in groups, as well as without caution or provision. (Cuneen, C. & White, R. 2002 Pg: 65)
The first steps taken towards a system that catered for Juvenile justice were the Welfare system in the 1960s. (O’Connor, I. 1997 Pg: 3) The system prevented children from being persecuted by the adult courts, and formed a separate legal regime for the young offenders. The purpose of this separation was to segregate child offenders from their adult counter parts with the intention of reducing criminality and re-offending rates through removing children from ‘criminal influences’. (Pratt, J 1993 Pg: 40)
The problem with the welfare system lies in both its merit and its lack of foresight. The presumption that the welfare of a child’s family background often lead to criminality and social delinquency soon resulted in an exodus of children from their families. (O`Conner, I. 1997 Pg: 232) What this had achieved is that in an attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ young offenders, the system stigmatised the youth it was trying to protect into delinquency. (Hogg and Brown 1998 Pg: 193)
The second attempt at integrating juveniles into the criminal justice system was the Justice Model. The justice system saw a re-legalization of youth crime, and offenders were to be held responsible and their criminal behaviour was held accountable in the same way as adults in court. The main foci of the justice system saw that punitive punishment was meant to be a ‘general deterrent to all member of the community to abstain from particular behaviour. (Borowski, A. & O’Connor, L. 1997 Pg: 238) The main problems with the justice system were its reliance on the court proceedings and its blind bias to extenuating circumstances and the backgrounds of the offenders. This system did nothing to rehabilitate the offender, and further stigmatised the youth.
From these two failed systems there were two core components which were considered missing from a good juvenile justice system. Prevention was better than cure, and an intervention system was required for juveniles to escape from the labelling of delinquency. In addition rehabilitation became a major issue for the theorists looking towards a new system.
The new aim of the system was not to induct young people into the criminal justice but to turn them away, so that they can continue to live fruitful lives. This was the Restorative Justice system. The core theory of the restorative justice was the restoration of the victims, offenders and community to mainstream society. Where possible the restorative justice system aimed to move the offender through the issue of offence rather than punish the offender. (AIC: 2004 Pg: 1)
The restorative justice system saw the enactment of the Young Offenders act in 1997. It brought about major change in how the justice legislations dealt with youth offenders. Its aims were to “build upon work that has already being done, by introducing a structured, consistent and principled approach to dealing with juvenile offenders…” (Shaw, J. 1997 Pg: 2) as well as having “the limited use of Police justice system resources through a significant increase in the use of alternative interventions for young people.” (Shaw, 1997 Pg: 3)
A major benefit of the Restorative Justice system was that it was non intrusive into the lives of the offenders. In addition it took into account matters such as the social and economical background of the offenders. In this the restorative system have three main foci, it puts emphasis on the feelings and experience of the victims, it gives legal actors decision making authority, and it sets a setting where all parties, such as the victims and the offenders can communicate to work out problems. (AIC 2004 Pg: 1)
The restorative justice system has seen the rise of several programs both short term and long term to deal with the problem of juvenile criminality. The Yong Offenders act saw the use of new ways to engage with potential and occurring young offenders. The processes involved giving a warning to the child, issuing cautions and holding youth conferences for non-serious offenders. (Johns, R. 2003 Pg: 12)
The point of this was to establish a “limited police and justice system resources through a significant increase in the use of alternative interventions for young people.” (Johns, R. 2003 Pg: 13) In performing theses roles, as new occupation was created within the police force called the Specialist Youth Officer. The Specialist Youth Officer is a member of the police service who is appointed by the commissioner of police for the purpose of the act. Cases are referred to these officers for the determination of decision making under the act. (Johns, R. 2003 Pg: 13)
Under the Youth Offenders act, warnings are formal ‘warnings’ by the police officer given at any place by an officer and may not have any conditions attached or any sanctions imposed. The officer must make sure the offender understands the nature of the warning and the effect of their actions and the warning itself. (Johns, R. 2003 Pg: 15) A caution as is a formal caution given to the offender with his or her consent provided that the offender admits to the offence. Finally conferencing is the last resort for police officers acting under the Young Offenders Act; it is designed to prevent the escalation of crime. It is based upon restorative theories, following that ‘crime is a violation of people and relationships and a justice system should aim to repair that. (Elliot, E. & Gordon, R. 2005 Pg: 46)
The purpose of conferencing is to allow the offender to come to terms and affect responsibility for their own behaviour. It is built as to seek out rights, needs and abilities of the child to maximize self respect and responsibility. It empowers families and institutions to make decisions about the child’s offending behaviour and to promote development of the child’s relationships with the world around them. Finally the system seeks to be as culturally unobtrusive as possible and to take into account basic factors such as the child’s racial, social, and economical background as well as any special circumstances the child may have. ((Elliot, E. & Gordon, R. 2005 Pg: 46)
This has lead to a wide range of programs in contemporary society that serves to cater to young offenders and steer them away from criminality. The fact that young people will not get a criminal record helps them avoid the stigma of the labelling process. (O`Conner, I. 1997 Pg: 231) In addition the view of young people towards police has vastly improved from intimidating figures of the law to be avoided to those of respectable social standing. (Edwards, C. 1999 Pg: 16) Furthermore the introduction of this system has lead to programs such as the PCYC, Blue Light Disco, Department of Community Services, Education Department and even secondary organisations such as the Salvation Army to form a multi agency network aimed at helping young offenders to rehabilitate into society, to avoid labelling stigma, and to integrate into lawful behaviours.
The Restorative Justice system and its integrative theory are described as one of the few big ideas in criminal justice. It is an important movement with huge benefits and a genuine and powerful move towards justice and crime. (Elliot, E. & Gordon, R. 2005 Pg: Introduction xiii) “Juveniles in detention in Australia 1981 – 2005” reports showed that in 1981 there were as many as 1352 youth were detained in prison while in June 2004; the figure had significantly declined to 564 detainees. (Taylor, N. & Veld, M. 2004 Pg: 14) This is a clear indication of the success of the 1997 Young Offenders act, the combined efforts of policing, conferencing, and the multi-tier networking of organisations such as DOCS, Education Department, Charities such as the Salvation Army and the ethical theories of the Restorative Justice System.