There is a problem with the over-representation of people of Sudanese background in Victoria’s youth justice system.
But it is not new, nor is it at epidemic levels that Melbourne’s streets are over run with lawlessness, despite a reported crime spree in the western suburbs on Thursday night.
There is also a problem with political leadership and debate in this country.
Last October, County Court Judge and chair of the youth parole board Michael Bourke spelt out serious concerns about the over-representation of teens from East Africa — mostly Sudan — in youth justice.
Indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders are also over-represented, the three groups make up “well over” 40 per cent of people in youth detention.
“This is a glaring over-representation,” Judge Bourke warned.
He also said in the board’s annual report: “There has been offending of growing seriousness, albeit limited to smaller numbers than the nature of some media coverage conveys.”
“It appears to me that the response and public discussion has been without sufficient reference to serious long-term factors and the now urgent need for action directed at those long-term factors.”
Basically, cheap political fearmongering seen from our political leaders is not going to help.
The problem is complex and has several fronts. The main two being dealing with the thuggish offenders now and long-term action to stop others falling into a culture of criminality.
Speaking to the ABC on Friday, Judge Bourke said a good start was better engagement with the South Sudanese community by authorities, including dedicated justice officials to get a better understanding of issues.
He also called for “sensible” transition programs out of the justice system for offenders to ensure that they have the support to avoid recidivism.
“It is a very difficult situation, what is going to develop [without action] is going to be a generationally entrenched underclass,” he said.
“The rhetoric isn’t helping.
“I don’t think the average person wants to feel outraged and intimidated. I think they want to drill down to solutions, that’s where the public needs to focus on, especially on the long term.”
The language is emboldening people
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton telling Sydney radio that Melburnians are too scared to go out to restaurants is the most egregious example of the hyped-up rhetoric that passes for political debate on the matter.
It is damaging and has an effect on community.
This week, ABC reporter Guy Stayner was interviewing Ethiopian Australian Habib Gudato Tonnu, who has worked as a Boeing mechanic for 27 of his 31 years in Australia.
As the interview was underway a white middle aged man interjected “lock ’em all up, that’s what they should be doing”.
The language is emboldening people.
And the intervention of federal Liberal MPs, all the way up to the Prime Minister, has undermined Matthew Guy’s Coalition arguments to tackle the problem.
A tough on crime agenda is central to the Victorian Coalition’s pitch to voters to win office at the November 24 poll, the perception of chaos helps them.
While the crime rate has reduced for the first time in six years, it remains a hot-button issue for Labor and there are government MPs genuinely spooked about how the issue will be reflected in November’s election.
Mr Guy and his team have mounted a consistent policy message for months that tougher bail rules are required, especially for violent offenders, and that mandatory minimum sentences are needed — despite frequent condemnation from legal experts that such a regime is not effective.
Minister Dutton, and others’ offers to intervene without a full policy solution and overblown rhetoric have handed state Labor a get of jail card.
There is frustration from within Mr Guy’s team about their colleagues’ interventions.
Federal MPs have talked up the Australian Federal Police hitting the streets of Melbourne to tackle gangs, while the State Government says bail changes that come into effect in July will help.
The Andrews Government also talk up jobs and sports programs aimed at marginalised youth as part of a broader solution.
The nature of the offending, regardless of how often it occurs, is confronting and causes fear among some members of the community.
What is needed is a mature approach to punishing and rehabilitating offenders, and putting in place measures to stop it happening in the long term.
The challenge for government and authorities is to formulate strong policies, with the public demanding action.
Trying to do that in a hot political environment could be an even bigger challenge.