Federal funding for a youth diversion program in northern WA has been welcomed as advocates call for Aboriginal-led solutions to be central to any long-term strategy.
The Federal Budget last week included $2 million over two years for the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia to expand its youth engagement program as part of the Kimberley Juvenile Justice Project in the Kimberley and Pilbara.
It is the first time federal authorities have committed funding to the project.
Aboriginal United Services director Martin Sibosado said responses to youth crime to date had targeted the wrong people.
“One thing we see is in terms of those young people who are committing crimes is that they are off the radar; they don’t attend PCYC or do organised sports,” he said.
“Those kids are missing out – their home life is dysfunctional, there are addicted parents and substance abuse, they are on the radar of child welfare but the youth services don’t tend to deal with them.
“Most of the people they are engaged with are functional, they go to school, they’ll finish year 12, they come from working parents.”
Mr Sibosado said after hours services were crucial to tackling rising youth crime.
“At the moment everything after hours involves a police response,” he said.
“Close The Gap aims to reduce youth incarceration, but what we are seeing is that the first response from police and state government is to lock them up.
“People agree we need a circuit breaker to end the cars being stolen and so on, but in terms of the long-term response governments have not listened to us.”
Mr Sibosado said Aboriginal-led solutions were needed to address long-term problems.
He said a number of meetings would be held in the region this week to discuss strategies and solutions.
“Youth from the Kimberley make up a significant proportion of the Banksia Hill Detention Centre population in Perth,” Mr Sibosado said.
“We know a lot of our young people go there but the behaviour we have seen recent times is out of character.”
A WA Department of Justice spokesperson said the the Federal funding was welcome.
They said the pilot youth engagement program had shown success in providing support to Aboriginal young people in the Kimberley who have come into contact with the justice system.
The spokesperson attributed this success to the role of Aboriginal diversion officers in delivering support to help young people meet bail and court conditions.
“The program aims to reduce offending and recidivism, while improving the wellbeing and future-prospects of the young person,” they said.
The spokesperson said staff had built cultural connections with the families of young offenders, which has led to the identification of areas of critical need, including volatile substance abuse, mental health issues and self-harm risks.
“During the first 12 months of YEP-K’s operation the majority of young people supported by the program did not reoffend and received a range of support including mentoring, assistance in education or training, gaining access to essential documentation and improving cultural connection,” they said.
“The expansion of this program will provide invaluable culturally and locally based understandings to inform a broader strategy to address Aboriginal young people’s involvement with the criminal justice system.”
The spokesperson said this had also allowed staff to find more appropriate placements for young people whose current residence was unstable.