Diversion of Indigenous Juvenile Offenders

By Snowball, Lucy | Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Diversion of Indigenous Juvenile Offenders


Snowball, Lucy, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice


Conferencing and cautioning are used as diversionary alternatives in the juvenile justice system and there is evidence to suggest they reduce reoffending. As Indigenous young people are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, an important question is whether they are as likely to be diverted as non-Indigenous young people. This study used modelled data to examine juveniles' contact with the police and courts, and the differences in juvenile diversionary rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia in 2005. For all states, Indigenous young offenders were more likely than non-Indigenous offenders to be referred to court, non-Indigenous offenders were more likely to receive a police caution, and males and older offenders were more likely to be diverted. The number of prior contacts was similar for all states, with more contacts reducing the likelihood of diversion and with less likelihood of diversion for offenders committing offences against a person. As Indigenous young offenders are more likely to have multiple prior contacts with the system, including detention, further research is needed into the reasons for their high reoffending rates.

Judy Putt

General Manager, Research

The overrepresentation of Indigenous young people in the criminal justice system is one of Australia's most significant social problems. This overrepresentation was highlighted by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody as a contributing factor to the rate of Indigenous deaths in custody (Commonwealth of Australia 1991). Although significant resources have been allocated to reduce this overrepresentation, the problem still remains. In 2005, Indigenous juveniles accounted for 52 percent of 1 0 to 1 7-year-olds in juvenile detention across Australia. In Western Australia (WA) the corresponding rate was 75 percent, in South Australia (SA) 44 percent and in New South Wales (NSW) 52 percent (SCRGSP 2007).

New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia have introduced systems of conferencing and/or cautioning to reduce the overall rate of juvenile contact with the criminal justice system. In New South Wales, this is referred to as a Youth Justice Conference (YJC), in South Australia a Family Conference (FC) and in Western Australia a Juvenile Justice Team (JJT). Conferences are facilitated by a trained conference convenor. Family members of the offender, the victim(s), members of the criminal justice system and other interested parties can attend, along with the offender. The offence and its impact on the victim(s) and the wider community are discussed, and the offender is encouraged to accept responsibility and negotiate some form of restitution (also see 'Note').

Although these diversionary alternatives appear to be effective in reducing reoffending (Luke & Lind 2002), Indigenous young offenders appear to be much less likely to be diverted than their non- Indigenous counterparts. Data from South Australia indicate that Indigenous young offenders are more likely to be sent to court and less likely to receive a formal caution or be diverted to a FC than non- Indigenous young offenders (Wundersitz & Hunter 2005).

Similarly, in Western Australia, Indigenous young people are five times more likely to have had formal contact with the police and 29 times more likely to have been arrested (in the 1 0-1 4 year age group) (Loh & Ferrante 2003). In New South Wales, Indigenous young people are more likely than non- Indigenous young people to be taken to court (64% compared with 48%) and less likely to be cautioned (1 4% compared with 28%) by police (Chan et al. 2004).

The reason for this discrepancy in rates of juvenile diversion is of critical importance to criminal justice policy. Studies by Luke and Cunneen (1 995) and Cunneen (2006) have argued that racial bias in the exercise of police discretion early in the criminal justice process contributes to Indigenous overrepresentation in juvenile detention centres and prison.

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