Young Aboriginal people who are in contact with the juvenile justice system in SA would benefit from greater access to diversionary programs and to Aboriginal mentors or support workers, according to the story below by Summer May Finlay, reporting for Croakey’s #JustJustice project.
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Summer May Finlay writes:
We know our young people are incarcerated at significantly higher rates than other Australians, and South Australia is no exception, where Aboriginal young people aged between 10-17 years old are only 4 percent of people in that age bracket in Australia but are 46 percent of young people in detention. They also make up 34 percent of young people under community-based supervision.
These statistics made South Australia’s rate of contact of Aboriginal young people with the juvenile justice system the second highest in the country.
For Dale Agius, a Kaurna, Narungga, Nadjeri, Ngakaraku man, one of the issues is the lack of appropriate diversionary programs.
It is well known that if a young person experiences incarceration at an early age, they are less likely to complete school or become employed if they had never been in contact with the criminal justice system. This is why diversionary programs are so important.
We also need to make sure that if young people to come in contact with the justice system, they have a voice all the way through and that there are adequate support programs on release, according to Mr Agius.
Mr Agius has worked in the justice sector in a variety of roles for 15 years, including Community Correction, Aboriginal Liaison Officer, Aboriginal Case Management as well as the Aboriginal Programs Officer working in therapeutic programs for high risk Violent and Sexual offenders in Correctional Services Psych Services Unit (Rehabilitation Programs Branch). He has also worked for the Department of Premier and Cabinet and State Government.
More recently, Mr Agius was the Executive Officer to the South Australian Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement where he advised and supported the Commissioner on relevant policy topics including justice. Currently he is the Ministerial Advisor Liaison Officer to Kyam Maher MLC, the South Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation. In this position he forms the link between the Division of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, the community and the Ministerial staff. He is also a current member of the Youth Parole Board, which in South Australia is called Youth Review Board.
Need for Aboriginal involvement
There is clearly no quick or easy solution to addressing these issues, which is why it’s important Aboriginal people are involved in all aspects across the justice system, including policing, incarceration, incarceration management and engagement, exit transition planning and ongoing support post detention.
Aboriginal engagement at all levels of the justice system ensures our kids are getting an opportunity to be involved in their rehabilitative process and are adequately supported, says Mr Agius.
He believes “part of my role [on the Youth Review Board] is to engage other youth parole Board members who may not be as aware of some of the challenges faced by Aboriginal young people, and to present the systemic barriers and challenges faced with access to services.”
“It’s important to have an Aboriginal voice at that level,” he says.
“Without an Aboriginal person on the Board, they don’t always hear the voice of the young Aboriginal person. And it can be difficult to take their views into account and include them in the process.”
When a young person comes before the Board, they are represented by a case manager or case coordinator, who works with the young person while in detention and helps them with an Exit Plan. Exit Plans are a structured pathway plan for what the young person is going to be doing when on conditional release. The Exit Plan is then presented to the Board by the case manager or coordinator.
Youth voices matter
However, this system is not perfect, says Mr Agius. He believes that sometimes young people will agree to questions during the development of the Exit Plan because they believe the case manager or coordinator know best.
But Mr Agius believes in the youth having a say, “they know the areas they are being released to, and what challenges lie ahead.
“It’s reasonable to say that the youth should be engaged in the development of their Exit Plan,” he says.
“It demonstrates that they are thinking of ways to stop behaviours and attitudes which lead to coming into the justice system.”
Some Aboriginal young people have an Aboriginal mentor or Aboriginal support worker, and he has noticed that these young people seem to have a stronger connection with their mentors and support people when they are Aboriginal.
Mr Agius says:
I would like to see more Aboriginal mentors, and more Aboriginal support people come and present to the youth Board. (This ensures) there is continuous connection between the youth and the Aboriginal mentor, from detention to reintegration back into the community.The worker can present options to the Board who may not be up to speed on which services are available.
I feel that this would lead to more participation by our young people in their Exit Plans. This participation would bring a clearer focus on where they are headed post release and lead to better outcomes.
It is a privilege to have Aboriginal mentors or support worker attend a youth review Board hearing. They clearly present a progressive pathway for completing vocation or education opportunities to the benefit of our young people.
It’s a shame not all young Aboriginal people coming before the Board have the option of an Aboriginal mentors or support worker. We just need more.”
Diversionary strategies needed
Mr Agius says we also need “more diversionary strategies that are responsive to the needs of our youth. We have one really good program called the “The Journey Home, and The Journey to Respect program”.
The program works with young Aboriginal people who have had issues with offending attitudes. The program presents the young person with a realistic model, which empowers them to identify their heritage, connection to country, place, while taking responsibility for their behaviour. This leads to the young person engaging in the process and developing solutions and alternatives.
While the program is great, not all young Aboriginal people who have been in detention have access to it. Mr Agius says “to really reduce the rate of young people coming in contact with the justice system, we need to make sure all our young people have access to programs like these.”
Beyond programs like this, young Aboriginal people need other support programs, which aren’t always available in their areas such as outreach Alcohol and other Drug services, employment, education and training services and accommodation.
More services needed in regional and remote areas
In regional and remote areas, services can be limited or non-existent. Mr Agius says “the availability of services can limit our youth opportunities post release”.
He would like to see all Aboriginal young people have the support of the services they need in their own communities.
“There is actually nothing in operation that is a coordinated exit strategy in addressing young Aboriginal offenders’ needs,” he says.
At times, immediate release back into the community is not an option for these young people and some may need to remain in metropolitan areas. If immediate release back into their community is not an option due to the lack of services, there needs to be a coordinated service release response which could assist in eventually returning youth back to their communities after fulfilling service treatment goals in the city.
Mr Agius acknowledges that there is a lot to do to reduce the number of young Aboriginal people coming in contact with the justice system.
As an individual, he is doing what he can to get the best outcomes for our kids. He is undertaking a Bachelor of Arts and majoring in Social Science in Human Services and Psychological Science so he can increase his understanding of what is needed.
“I am studying because of my passion for justice and interest in psychology,” he says.
“My interests extend to justice more broadly though I am finding that there is a higher demand for these services in the Aboriginal space.”
One day he hopes this is not the case.
• Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman who engages with Croakey in a number of capacities, including as a member of the #JustJustice project, and has reported for the Croakey Conference News Service. Summer is currently undertaking a PhD with the University of South Australia.
Follow her on Twitter: @OnTopicAus
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You can read more than 50 #JustJustice articles published to date here.
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