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Rejecting 'tough on crime'? That's political bravery

Opinion

The Opposition should be commended for its political courage in rejecting the State Government’s latest “tough on crime” measure, argues Ross Womersley from welfare group SACOSS.

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With an election in the air, neither of the major parties wants to be in a position where the public can accuse them of being soft on crime. This is why the Opposition must be congratulated for having the courage to oppose the State Government’s tough new Bill for repeat offenders.

The Government’s response to a series of high-profile and tragic accidents caused by repeat young offenders was to seek harsher punishments and to treat children and young people as adults.

Of course the issue of repeat juvenile offending does need serious attention. And SACOSS has consistently said the best way to deal with this is to intervene early.

On many occasions, teenage re-offending has its origins in the failure of our government systems and our community more broadly to positively intervene, long before tragic incidents occur.

Many of the young people involved have not grown up with the nurturing support of a strong family or great adult role models, and have often had life experiences none of us would argue were good for them.

While we understand that the Government is under enormous pressure to respond to public outrage, SACOSS believes that this Bill is a step in the wrong direction. Not only is it ethically wrong, it fails to consider the wider underlying issues that lead to re-offending and therefore, most importantly, it won’t have the intended result which is to improve community safety.

This proposed Bill may remove individual young offenders from the community for longer periods of time, but there is ample evidence that harsher penalties and imprisonment are not a deterrent against children and young people engaging in criminal offending, nor do they reduce the likelihood of recidivism post release.

Importantly, this Bill – like the recent Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017, which SACOSS also opposed – fails to adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that the “best interests” of children should be the primary consideration in all actions undertaken by state authorities.

Equally the Bill would override objectives in the Young Offenders Act 1993 which fundamentally looks to secure, care for, correct and guide children and young people who offend in order to provide the best opportunity for them to develop into responsible and useful members of the community.

If simply sentencing young offenders as adults won’t improve community safety, what might?

A great start would include a well-resourced rehabilitation system, as well as big investments in programs to address family violence, addiction, mental health issues, poor education and a lack of jobs, in the lives of both the children and young people as well as the adults who surround them. Ultimately it’s here where we often find the root causes of criminality and offending.

Most importantly these approaches that intervene early have a growing evidence base and are much more likely to have the desired impact of increased community safety.

Ross Womersley is CEO of the South Australian Council of Social Service.

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