Keeping young offenders out of prison

As Australia's prison population rises, the federal government is looking at 'justice reinvestment' in a bid to break the cycle of re-offending.

For the past 30 years, Australia's prison population has been growing. Now the federal government is considering the idea of 'justice reinvestment' to break the cycle of re-offending.

By SBS reporter Christine Heard

Young offenders are a group of Australians you rarely get to see, let alone meet.

So when I went to Sydney's western suburbs to interview Isaac (not his real name) I was wondering what sort of person I would find.

He was late for the interview and I was worried that he'd changed him mind. That would have been a problem because I really wanted to put a human face to my story about justice reinvestment.

When he arrived it was in the company of Tony Hoang. If you've seen Once Upon A Time In Cabramatta, you'll know Tony. He's a former gang member, turned pastor to troubled youths, and he's taken it upon himself to mentor Isaac. Tony is a calm, quietly-spoken man and it's hard to imagine him in his previous life as a hardened gang member.

Isaac was nervous, but friendly and polite. Once we started recording, he became entirely focussed on the task at hand and really surprised me with his honest, articulate answers. This 18 year old has already spent three months in juvenile detention, and is now facing new charges. If found guilty, he could be sent back.

Far from the stereotypical tough-guy comments like "whatever," "I don't care" or "it didn't affect me," Isaac instead gave an honest insight into life inside juvenile detention: a place where he felt angry a lot of the time, threatened, unsupported, and worried about how his family was coping.

When asked about possibly going back, there was more honesty - if he went back, he'd be mixing with other young criminals and that could lead to him becoming a gang member.

Sure, the honest, apologetic, contrite young man I met could've been all an act. My gut feeling is it isn't. I observed Isaac walking down the street and volunteering to help a driver trying to park her car; I observed his behaviour with Tony, his mentor, which was open and respectful. I also briefly met his mother, who is supporting Isaac through meetings with his lawyer and court appearances.

Isaac spoke of his siblings, and it's clear he's proud of those who've made successes of their lives, and is concerned that one brother may follow in his footsteps. He said he wanted to help that brother turn his life around, and also spoke of using his experiences to deter other youths from crime.

But there's no doubt that Isaac will need help to stay straight. He needs positive role models. He needs encouragement. He needs purpose. He needs support. Tony's there, so is Isaac's family. But an Australian justice system that embraced justice reinvestment would also provide Isaac and his community with other programs and opportunities that would strengthen his resolve.

Isaac next appears in court in a few weeks time. If found guilty, the magistrate must consider a sentencing report before announcing the punishment. The sentencing report looks at other options besides jail, to ensure that jail is being used as a last resort.

But guilty or not guilty, Isaac has a tough road ahead of him. The bright side? He's young, he's intelligent and he's conscious of how his bad choices have let him down.

Watch Christine Heard's report via YouTube

BLOG: Would you support justice re-investment?

WATCH: Tony Hoang's story of gang life


Tony Hoang website

Anti-violence organisation Enough is Enough

Victim support group VOCAL

UNSW Justice Reinvestment

Senate Committe report on Australia's Justice Reinvestment trial

Justice reinvestment - Oklahoma case study (watch below)

Source: SBS