Indigenous culture and peer mentoring are key elements of a program to help reduce WA's high rate of Indigenous youth imprisonment.
21 Feb 2013 - 8:51 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Western Australia has the second highest level of incarceration rates for young offenders after the Northern Territory.

The majority are Indigenous.

So what's being done about preventing juveniles ending up in prison or returning back there?

Amid a state election campaign, with both sides pledging to be tough on law and order, Ryan Emery takes a look.

"It would just be good for to have something, you know, bright in our life because, yeah, our life wasn't too bright growing up so you just want to make something, the future a better, yeah, a better memory."

Seventeen-year-old Jermaine, clutching a tissue between his hands, is talking about what he wants for himself and his two younger brothers and older sister.

They grew up with parents who smoked dope, drank heavily and left the children alone for days at a time while they gambled.

Jermaine says his father regularly beat him.

"Yeah, just, um, yeah, probably got a hiding four, five times a week, yeah, I don't know what for, he just kept, yeah …"

Both parents spent time in jail.

Jermaine's mother is inside now.

And like their parents - the children have been locked up as well.

Jermaine stole cars, broke into homes and was addicted to dope.

He acknowledges now the pain and suffering he caused.

He's on early release and wants to change his life.

He believes his best shot at doing that is with the HALO program.

It stands for Hopes, Aspirations, and Leadership Opportunities and is billed as a healing and rehabilitation program run out of a recreation centre in Spearwood, south of Perth.

"I want to finish off, finish off my education, yeah because, nah, it's pretty crap missing out on your Year 11 certificate only a couple of weeks just before because you got locked up and yeah, missed out."

HALO is run by Lee-Anne Smith.

She says she sees sad, young boys walk through the doors.

"And what I see when they walk out of this door is that they're full of hope. They've got visions, they've got goals, they've got dreams and they've got plans to get there and they actually start to believe that they can achieve them."

The program takes Indigenous boys and teenagers who have been in detention, got on the wrong side of the law or who are struggling with life and gets them to look at themselves and begin a healing process.

They talk, share their feelings, and acknowledge what they've done: including admitting the pain they caused others by their actions.

A big part of the program is learning about their Indigenous culture, which includes traditional dancing and they have formed a dance troupe that's regularly invited to preform at RSL events.

Lee-Anne Smith says they also improve their education, set goals for a better life and hopefully build their self-esteem.

"We had a young man come to the program that was 12 years old that was incarcerated and now he's turning 14 and, you know, he got caught up in the system, starting going off, hanging out with the wrong crowd, I guess following what family had been doing. He's now been accepted into a private boys' school. I mean that's just an amazing outcome. He went through the court system. He wanted to make sure that the system was fair, he wanted to see people get a fair go and decided that he wanted to be a lawyer so we're really grateful that he's got that opportunity to transition into an amazing school."

Other success stories in the past few years include participants getting jobs with mining companies, or going to university.

Last year, the program secured funding from the West Australian Department of Corrective Services for a further three years.

But Lee-Anne Smith says things are still tight.

"No disrespect to the department, but the funding's just never enough. The department can only spend what they've got. I really wish that it was more of a priority of government to spend more on diversionary programs. It is a choice. In any given day in Victoria, 50 young people are locked up; in any given day in Western Australia 200 are locked up so it is a choice. It's a choice of government where they spend the money. Do you spend it on locking children up or do you spend it on diversionary programs?"

The Liberal Party's Minister for Corrective Services Murray Cowper has declined to be interviewed on the subject of rehabilitation because the government is in "caretaker" mode in the lead up to the state election on March 9.

But in a written statement, he says the Barnett government has been pushing ahead with rehabilitation and diversionary programs to try to stop young people, mainly Indigenous ones, being locked up.

These programs have included Regional Youth Justice Service centres that can help with bail and accommodation if a responsible adult can't be found.

The government has also introduced a Juvenile Justice Team, which aims to steer early offenders away from the justice system.

But to be accepted - participants must acknowledge they have done something wrong and be willing to make amends.

Lee-Anne Smith says the HALO approach is different, incorporating both Indigenous culture and peer mentoring.

And she says those who have been mentored often end up becoming role models.

"When you come to HALO, this program is no longer just about you. Being on drugs is a very selfish way of living. I mean, you live from day to day, it's all about you. But when you come here, you have to put some of that aside and remember that you need to support others along the way. That's really quite empowering as well, you know, because a lot of young people come here with no self-worth and to think that they actually have something to offer and that they can help others, I think speeds up, speeds up that whole process of healing so culture, culture and that peer mentoring model is absolutely, they're the two key factors to what we do."

Two of those mentors are 19-year-old Louie and 21-year-old Jermaine who is waiting for the results of a medical test before he hopefully secures a well-paid job on the Fremantle wharfs.

But Louie, who suffers from alcohol fetal syndrome, first.

"The thing is with Aboriginal kids these days, they don't have a role model to lead the way so they have these cousins who've gone the wrong way and they think 'oh well I might take along with them, see what they up to' and with cousins, you know, you have to show that you can hang around them so you have to, they say 'oh we'll go and have a drink', but you'll be, you might want to say no, but they'll encourage you."

Jermaine is enthusiastic about HALO's effect.

"If they didn't have it, they'd probably be in Banksia (prison) and that most of the boys. HALO, for them, is somewhere to come to get somewhere to stay on the right track and get off the wrong track and without HALO, I just think in this community, it just would be pretty bad with the young boys and that."

The HALO centre is a place where the boys can get away from dysfunctional homes and negative influences.

They play basketball, or box, improve their education, get a healthy meal, often kangaroo stew, and obtain help with things like getting a learner driver's permit.

Former mentor Leon Blanket is back at the centre.

He lost his father when he was 14 and started drinking and smoking dope.

He stole cars, broke into homes, threw bricks at passing cars.

He's now a father of two and is at HALO to get help to get his driver's licence so he can get back to work.

"Well, it turned out to be a pretty good place to hang out with all the boys because it kept me out of trouble and well basically I didn't go out stealing, which, while I look back now, which was really silly of me, stealing cars and going for joyrides and things. And well, this place, has well, been an inspiration for me and a couple of other boys."

The Opposition Labor Party's corrective services spokesman Fran Logan believes HALO provides the kind of the holistic approach Indigenous youth need.

He concedes that although being tough on law and order is a vote winner, if the rehabilitation and diversionary arguments are presented well, the community will accept them.

"Look I think there's a general move across the board, and even in conservative circles as well, recognize that you can't just keep locking people up. You have to find a different way of dealing with law and order issues, particularly as related to young people because otherwise if you don't find alternative methods of dealing with their offences and ways to change their behavior, you're just going to continually set them on a path of crime."

Lee-Anne Smith again.

"This is no soft option. Coming to HALO is not any easy option for young people. We deliver a program in the detention centre so we know what goes on in there. Coming here is the tough option. To take a look at yourself, to take responsibility for what you've done and to be truly sorry, and to really work on your personal issues is a really tough job. I mean anyone know that if they've tried to lose weight or get fit, how many people stick to those goals? It's not an easy option and it really upsets me and disturbs me that people think that non-custodial sentences are a soft option. They're not. Going to detention is challenging for young people because they're away from family, but rehabilitating within those systems is a choice by them and the stats show that it's not working."

The statistic in question is Western Australia's nearly 56 per cent recidivism rate for young offenders.

The chairman of HALO, Darryl Kickett, believes its approach of culture and peer support has been proven to work.

He wants the community service sector award-winning program applied throughout the state.

"We have a relatively small client base. We want to grow that with regards to those who we're dealing with, regards to diversionary. We want to be able to do more for the families of those young people who are involved in diversionary program so that we give better support to build the environment and improve the situation at home for those young men, you know, when they go back into their communities."

And it's for the boys like 17-year-old Jermaine that support is needed most.

A few days after his interview for this story, he was back inside.

Unable to keep up with the conditions of his early release.

"A lot of us, we do need help. When we say 'nah we don't need help', but yeah, we do. We just try and do it ourselves because, I don't know, it feels like you have something to prove."