'Us and them' culture: Final youth justice report outlines deterioration at Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre

A riot at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre in January last year. Picture: DARREN HOWE
A riot at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre in January last year. Picture: DARREN HOWE

A NEW report into Victoria’s youth justice system has outlined the dramatic increase in recorded offences occurring within the walls of the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre since 2016.

In the nine months from July 2016 to March 2017 there were 319 offences at the centre, compared with 161 for the previous 12 months – a rapid increase following a period of plateau.

The final report, completed by the Victorian parliament’s legal and social issues committee, outlined a significant deterioration in the state’s youth justice system since the introduction of a “stronger security focus” in 2010.

It found that the system has been unable to adapt to the changing nature of youth offending, tensions have increased due to increasingly punitive and restrictive practices, long-term staffing problems and inadequate rehabilitation and support services.

The committee made 39 recommendations, including establishing a rehabilitative mentoring program, employing an “appropriately qualified” workforce, improving housing options for offenders post-release and cultural competence training for youth justice staff.

More than $310,000 in damage was caused to the Malmsbury and Parkville centres between July 2016 and June 2017.

The riots were part of a trend of increasing hostility and tension at the centres.

Former Malmsbury staff described a “downturn in workplace culture since 2010” when attitudes became more punitive, and staff support decreased. The changes followed a damning Victorian Ombudsman’s report which found conditions at Parkville were “disgraceful”.

The centre’s former assistant superintendent John Burch told the committee that Victoria’s youth justice system was considered “exemplary within Australia” just a decade ago.

“It is… no coincidence that, during this previous period, the DHHS Juvenile Justice Program had a full complement of highly experienced and qualified policy advisors who helped steer the system towards being the country’s best,” he said.

“Unfortunately, however, significant public service staffing cuts several years ago reduced the availability of such expertise to the government.”

A significant increase in the use of agency staff, or casual staff, at Malmsbury was also criticised in the report.

From January to February 2017, the percentage of agency staff used at Malmsbury increased from 23.4 per cent to 53.9 per cent. The report found this stopped young offenders from forming bonds with staff and damaged the security situation.

Mr Burch said this had created an “us and them” culture between staff and young people.

He said that, by 2016, the youth justice centres had fallen victim to a “deteriorating command and control culture” seen at the Don Dale centre in the Northern Territory.

Malmsbury residents describe deteriorating safety environment

The Malmsbury centre was opened in 1965 and the secure facility was opened in 2015.

Riot police at Malmsbury following the breakout of 15 residents. Picture: Paul Jeffers

Riot police at Malmsbury following the breakout of 15 residents. Picture: Paul Jeffers

Malmsbury residents – such as Philip and Therese Watts – were among those to notice a change in the security arrangement for the local community.

“Of recent times the events at the centre have affected locals negatively,” they told the committee.

“There are constant calls on the local fire brigade and we know that staff have been regularly threatened and injured while working there.”

Other issues identified with the youth justice system included poor life outcomes for those engaged in the system, the worsening over-representation of Koori young people, high rates of assault in custody, and the system is the most expensive in Australia.

Despite this, Victoria had the second lowest rate of incarceration for people aged 10 to 17 behind Tasmania.

The state government has six months to respond to the report. It has already committed $50 million in overhauling measures following an independent review into youth justice in Victoria.

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