A remote justice reinvestment program in WA’s Kimberley region has seen a near 50 percent reduction in burglary offences since its inception in May 2019.

In collaboration with Social Reinvestment WA (SRWA), the Shire of Halls Creek has established a team of Youth Engagement Night Officers, known as the YENOs, as part of WA’s first justice reinvestment site: Olabud Doogethu.

Translating to “All of Us, Together”, the Olabud Doogethu project aims to reduce incarceration rates and create better outcomes for young Aboriginal people in the Shire of Halls Creek – where the population is 84 percent Aboriginal.

After the Shire’s youth justice funding was cut in 2017, the Shire went back to the community to reassess what residents wanted in terms of youth justice initiatives.

The Shire then approached Social Reinvestment WA (SRWA), a coalition of 25 organisations committed to reducing the high rates of Indigenous youth incarceration in WA, to support them in their co-design of a new youth program.

For SRWA, it’s important they place the decision-making for programs with the community.

“We want to support place-based, community-led initiatives that put into practice these principles of early intervention, prevention and diversion, rather than everyone being funnelled into the crisis end of our justice system,” said SRWA Coordinator, Sophie Stewart.

Inspired by the Maranguka project in Bourke, NSW through JustReinvest NSW, the Shire worked with SRWA to develop Olabud Doogethu.

After an 18-month co-design, the initiative was signed off by Aboriginal leaders in all 11 participating communities in the Shire, including:

  • Halls Creek
  • Balgo (Wirrimanu)
  • Billiluna (Mindibungu)
  • Mulan
  • Ringer Soak (Kundat Djaru)
  • Warmun (Turkey Creek)
  • Yiyili
  • Red Hill
  • Mardiwah Loop
  • Yardgee
  • Nicholson Block.

Part of this new project was a focus on getting young people off the streets at night.

Before the Youth Engagement Night Officers (YENOs) were in force, Halls Creek would see upwards of 60 young people out in the streets at night, with burglaries and stealing common occurrences.

Once the Night Officers were employed, Halls Creek saw a dramatic shift in its offence rates.

In the first month, offences dropped from 138 to 44.

“It’s entirely Aboriginal led … they’re not police officers … they’re youth workers who are on the street at night,” Stewart said.

“What they do as Youth Engagement Night Officers is not about getting kids in trouble, it’s about encouraging the kids to go home, it’s about chatting to them about why they’re out.”

While the YENOs are on the street from about 9pm until 4am the next morning, the entire Olabud Doogethu program runs daily from 8am until about 4am.

Stewart said local police have backed the program and that they support the YENO team when they can.

Halls Creek Senior Sergeant Dean Bailey said since the program’s inception, burglary offences in the Halls Creek townsite had reduced by 46 percent and stealing offences had reduced by 12 percent.

“I believe [the YENOs] role is a significant contributor to this reduction … When the YENO team are not working my officers report the street presence and anti-social behaviour of the youth increases notably,” Sen. Sgt Bailey said.

Dean Mosquito, Mitchell Bradshaw and Casey Hunter are all YENOs who do their best to help kids on the street at night

As YENO team coordinator, Mosquito, specifically chose the eight-man team, with each team member representing a particular family group in town – making it culturally secure.

“We mainly try and get the kids home earlier, during school hours … [try] and lead them on the right path,” Mosquito said.

To link up with the YENOs who identify young people who are consistently on the streets at night, a daytime team of Aboriginal Parent Support Team Workers has also been established.

“There was eight of us, but we split the group in half to leave four on the night shift and four on the day shift,” Mosquito said.

The day crew reaches out to struggling families and tries to help in any way they can.

“We just go have a yarn with parents and try and get them involved as well … so that way we’re on the same page.”

SRWA Coordinator Sophie Stewart (far right) with Youth Engagement Night Officers. Photo supplied.

While the justice reinvestment program has seen early success, the YENOs themselves are keen to improve, flagging the issue of a lack of female representation.

“Mainly for young girls on the street at night … we need women out there.”

Mosquito, Bradshaw and Hunter were all candid about the realities of young girls talking to men at night, saying sometimes girls might not feel comfortable talking to them.

While they all have been asking around to see if any women want to be part of the team, funding for more team members is a hurdle they must all overcome.

The Officers all agreed that leading the next generation down a better path is the best part of the job for them.

“It’s helping our own people … life might become a bit better for the younger ones.

“They’re the next generation for us … we need to teach them while they’re still young, the right ways.”

Due to the early success in Halls Creek Shire, Stewart is hopeful these justice reinvestment programs can be expanded and tailored to other in-need communities.

“[It’s about] doing the early intervention and prevention in the community that stops young people from ending up in the prison system.”

By Hannah Cross