Dutton and Turnbull have clearly been catching up on their holiday reading (Image via @PeterWMurphy1)

The Government should be condemned for demonising poor and minority communities, writes Kate Hamley, who suggests a better approach to the issue of youth crime.

I grew up in Hoppers Crossing, a suburb in Melbourne’s West. In the 1990’s and '00’s, it was always risky to walk around at night through certain areas, parks constantly had graffiti, break-ins and muggings were commonplace. It was all just a part of living in Melbourne’s West. Hearing the reports of a vandalised park in Tarneit a month ago, it seems that nothing has really changed in the area. Bored kids are still finding ways to entertain themselves in the same counter-productive ways they did in the past. We just have a larger population now, so reports appear more frequently.

This time, though, the media and politicians have decided that bored kids deserve to be used as a political football for the election year and I find this deeply disturbing. Statistics from Victoria actually show that the rate of crime being committed by young people has been decreasing over the last decade (likely with the cost of technology becoming accessible) and the Victorian Police Commissioner has reiterated that this anti-social behaviour is not a new occurrence.

I am not excusing violent behaviour — it’s not acceptable for people to be hurt and terrorised by gangs, houses ransacked and property vandalised. But this is not even close to a “crisis”. Most reports of youth crime are the petty actions of bored kids loitering in malls made out to be some kind of serious crime syndicate. Nevertheless, some instances are quite serious and if we stop and look at the reasons that perpetuate this kind of destructive behaviour, we can hope to arrive at some solutions. (Hint: it’s not more kiddy prisons.)

Firstly, bored children make terrible decisions.

Irrespective of where these kids were born, we seem to hastily overlook the basic notion that these are kids. There are reasons why children are not allowed to drive a car: they physically lack the logical and rational level of brain development and impulse control to do so safely.  We, as a society, accept this notion, but when we begin to discuss the complexities of antisocial and violent behaviour by children it seems to be immediately dismissed. We seem to think that children are in complete control of their actions when they engage in negative behaviour and conveniently ignore the other influences which have pushed a child into that position. So, when kids are left with nothing to occupy their minds, they can be easily persuaded to engage in risky, dangerous or illegal activity for amusement. They lack the cognitive ability to understand risk and consequences to the extent that a person in their 20s or 30s would. Calls to punish children to the same extent as a fully aware adult are horribly injust and ignore the fact that these kids are just kids.

Not every young person engages in antisocial behaviour, nor is it the majority of young people. Some play footy. Some go to the movies with friends, or the beach, or pool. Some kids get to go on holidays with their families. These are the luxuries of the middle class, from which poor kids are excluded. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the cost of housing in Melbourne, but it creates flow-on effects for low income households. It doesn’t leave many dollars for entertainment. So for a poor, bored child, causing a bit of mischief sounds like fun.

Acts of juvenile delinquency have different consequences, depending on your socioeconomic status. For example, there are very few rich kids in juvenile detention. Being poor automatically means that you are more likely to be charged for your destructive fun-spree than a child from a wealthy family.

There are other factors which put a young person at higher risk of engaging in negative behaviour such as:

  • Living in a lower-socioeconomic area like Melbourne’s western suburbs, Frankston or Geelong, or regional areas where services and employment opportunities are low.
  • Unemployment — we are in the midst of a crisis in youth unemployment. Jobs traditionally done by young people have been outsourced and automated, and the number of apprenticeships halved. For those who do find work, they face casualisation, exploitation, lack of workers rights and, particularly for kids, incredibly low wages.
  • Family violence — children exposed to violence growing up see it as a normal part of life
  • Being victims of abuse, neglect or violence.
  • In state care — state wards are significantly more likely to experience the justice system.
  • Family involved in the justice system.

What all of these factors have in common is that they are symptoms of poverty. Poverty and childhood violence damages children's development and makes them far more susceptible to coercion into antisocial and, sometimes, criminal acts.

When we specifically look at the trauma experienced by children who have grown up in places like Sudan, it is easy to see how coming into a new country with next to no support, language barriers and a subtle level of racism locking you out of employment can cause young people to become highly vulnerable to recruitment by groups of thugs offering a sense of comradery.

When our leaders begin advocating for a "crack-down on youth crime", what that means is that they are going to throw poor, vulnerable kids in jail for minor offences, further isolating them and hardening their angst against society. If they were serious about reducing crime, our leaders would advocate to end the poverty, discrimination and societal exclusion that places kids in these situations in the first place.

Our society is responsible for the lives and suffering of our people.

The social security nets there to keep people out of poverty are broken — it’s easier to rob your neighbours than receive and maintain a Centrelink allowance. Three million Aussies are living below the poverty line — people are desperate, frustrated and angry. There are no options to engage in activities when you’re poor, everything costs something that you don’t have. Boredom, hopelessness and feelings of angst toward a society that has failed you, combined with poor impulse control, create bad outcomes for all of our society.

Alas, there is a way out of this awful situation.

We could see enormous social improvements if our politicians would show some leadership and push for desperately needed systemic changes:

  • Ongoing funding for community outreach to work with young people at risk across all communities, to provide early intervention and minimise re-offending.
  • Fix the social security net and lift 3 million Aussies out of poverty.
  • Fix the health system to improve access to state-funded drug and alcohol rehabilitation places and mental health services.
  • Provide free access to activities for kids and young people over holiday periods.
  • Enact all recommendations from the Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, preventing further damage and trauma to children.
  • Provide counselling and support for people arriving in Australia from war stricken countries to overcome psychological and emotional trauma.
  • Promote diversity and acceptance in our communities so that kids feel a part of society, not that they need to fight against it.

Blaming minorities for all of our society’s problems appears to be Mr Dutton’s favourite hobby, but will cause ongoing issues of disempowerment, perpetuate discrimination and create deepening divides between members of our community. Crime is largely a by-product of poverty — not one that can be solved by demonising young people and locking children in prison cells. If the Government were serious about stopping crime and violence, then it would fix poverty in Australia. Anything less is pissing in the wind. It has been 30 years since we had a Prime Minister promise to end poverty for our kids, and every prime minister since has failed them.

Crime is a symptom of a society that is sick. We need our governments to listen and act cooperatively to protect young people from exploitation in all forms. Children must never be used as a political tool — the Liberal party should be condemned for their harmful and dangerous words and actions, which will further punish and marginalise the poor and minority communities.

The solution to youth disengagement is a long-term ongoing commitment to end cycles of disadvantage and exclusion, to support a strong community of empowerment, connectedness and hope.

Kate Hamley is the CEO of the Victorian Kids in Care Advocacy Service, a scientist, mother of two and human rights activist based in Melbourne’s north west. You can follow Kate on Twitter @Kate_Hamley.

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