Centre for Community Alternatives executive director David Condliffe talks youth justice in Bendigo

New York is home for David Condliffe, but a speaking engagement in Bendigo yesterday presented a chance to explore the city where it all started for his family.

The Centre for Community Alternatives executive director visited the grave of his great-grandfather Alfred Bell Condliffe, who worked at Bendigo Pottery and was laid to rest at the White Hills Cemetery.

US expert’s Bendigo connection

DAVID Condliffe has travelled the world through the neighbourhoods of New York City for most of his life.

But today, he found himself in the city where his great-grandfather was buried, and his grandfather was born – Bendigo.

“My great-grandfather was Alfred Bell Condliffe, he moved here about the time when the Bendigo Pottery opened. He was a foreman in the pottery,” Mr Condliffe said. 

“He was killed in an accident with a horse in 1899… my grandfather was eight years old at the time.

“Interestingly enough, he had memories of his mother, who was then suddenly single with three boys… the parish gave her a milk cart, and he had memories of riding on the back of the milk cart with his mother.

“She ultimately met someone and remarried and eventually moved to Christchurch, but he was educated in Bendigo schools before he went on to university and so forth.”

John Bell Condliffe, Mr Condliffe’s grandfather, was ultimately knighted by the Queen.

He served as an Anzac during the First World War, where be became one of the first victims of chlorine gas.

“He became blind and lost some of his hearing as a result, but later regained his sight,” Mr Condliffe said.

His grandfather was best known for his contributions to economics, having authored the World Economic Survey for the League of Nations.

“He actually wrote five World Economic Surveys for the League of Nations and Yale University gave him a prize because it was the first time someone had tried to create a survey of the entire globe's trade,” Mr Condliffe said.

Jane and David Condliffe visit Bendigo Pottery, where Mr Condliffe's great-grandfather once worked. Picture: NONI HYETT

Jane and David Condliffe visit Bendigo Pottery, where Mr Condliffe's great-grandfather once worked. Picture: NONI HYETT

An appointment to a professorship at the University of California in Berkeley saw his grandfather move to the United States, where he made promoting international trade his life work.

“He was an inspiring individual, but the point for me that's exciting is to be here in Bendigo where it all started,” Mr Condliffe said.

“This is my first trip to Australia.”

He was also due to make his first visit to New Zealand, after a speaking engagement in Bendigo.

Challenging the ‘tough on justice’ rhetoric

THERE are some people in the criminal justice system who might not ever be suitable for community-based alternatives to incarceration.

But in New York, the Centre for Community Alternatives has been rallying support to determine which people might be capable of turning their lives around, and providing an individualised approach to rehabilitation.

“The way we begin is with a very comprehensive mitigation report,” the organisation’s head, David Condliffe, said.

In the case of one young man accused of a violent gang assault, compiling an intensive psychosocial profile took a worker a month and came at a cost of $10,000.

Haven; Home, Safe chair Sue Clarke and Center for Community Alternatives executive director David Condliffe, who presented the Youth Crime address at Ulumbarra Theatre. Picture: NONI HYETT

Haven; Home, Safe chair Sue Clarke and Center for Community Alternatives executive director David Condliffe, who presented the Youth Crime address at Ulumbarra Theatre. Picture: NONI HYETT

Mr Condliffe told attendees at a function at Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre today the expense was worth it.

“If the only thing in front of the judge was [the man’s] record, which had been of repeated arrests and this charge of violent gang assault, that individual would have spent three to four years in our state prisons,” he said.

“It would have cost the taxpayer minimally $240,000 in just the state time alone. Never mind that he was housed at Rikers [Island], which is more expensive… so it would have cost probably close to $300,000.”

The young man spent some time at Rikers Island while the profile was being compiled, but Mr Condliffe said he ultimately received a probation.

“The court felt that despite the political pressure the judge felt to give this person state time, he now had the evidence to sentence him to probation because we also presented a very detailed plan that could actually turn this kid around,” he said.

“We had discovered who he really was based on his strengths and interests, not just his so-called needs.”

Mr Condliffe cited mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and education deficits as some of the ‘needs’ often considered in relation to youth crime.

But in order to strive for positive youth development, the Rutgers Law School graduate said both the system and the broader community needed to approach young people differently.

“We need to look at them as we would our own children,” Mr Condliffe said.

“How can we learn what their interests really are, and can we get them to open up and then begin to see for themselves that maybe these so-called needs get in the way of achieving their strengths and interests? 

“When they're properly engaged, they actually do change.”

He said he understood the anger the public felt when a horrendous crime was reported, ‘and there is this vengeful moment all of us have.’

“The question is, can we check that vengeance at the door and be pragmatic and look at what the evidence –  the studies –  have shown will produce a different result. And it’s not incarceration,” Mr Condliffe said.

David Condliffe addresses attendees at the Ulumbarra Theatre. Picture: NONI HYETT

David Condliffe addresses attendees at the Ulumbarra Theatre. Picture: NONI HYETT

He said efforts to reduce incarceration rates in New York had demonstrated it was possible to reduce both crime and the number of people in jail, simultaneously.

The population at the notorious Rikers Island jail rose to 20,000 during the early 90s, and Mr Condliffe said the state facility once had close to 80,000 inmates.

“We're reduced the jail population of Rikers from 20,000 down first to about 10,000, at which we formed a judicial commission to consider closing Rikers Island and we got the governor and the mayor to agree it should be closed, and instead we should develop smaller, borough-based facilities by reducing the population to 5000 and promoting the use of community alternatives instead of incarceration,” he said.

“We've discovered that incarcerating people actually increases crime, which is a rather perverse result, because it it produces trauma. And trauma tends to beget trauma.”

In New York, attitudes towards everything from youth justice to bail are starting to shift.

The age of criminal responsibility has increased from 16 to 18, in recognition of the need for more ‘developmentally appropriate ways to be held accountable’ as young people grow.

Meanwhile in Australia, children as young as 10 can be held criminally responsible for their actions.

“I am stunned that it’s 10,” Mr Condliffe, who is on Governor Cuomo’s Raise the Age commission, said.

He said an alternative to detention program had been developed in New York, which monitored people in the community.

Some of the program’s achievements included ensuring people were returning to court without bail being set.

“We believe there are more pragmatic ways to make sure people return to court,” Mr Condliffe said.

In some instances, he believed people could be released on their own recognisance and not be a threat to society.

“It doesn't mean to say there aren't some people who are truly a danger to society and shouldn't be incarcerated - there are some people like that. But they're much smaller in number than we're typically incarcerating in the United States,” Mr Condliffe said.

The CCA is the lead contractor for the city of New York inside the Crossroads Juvenile Detention Centre providing after-school programming.

“It's the first time New York City has had after-school programming inside a juvenile detention centre,” Mr Condliffe said. 

He said the programming had significantly reduced violence at the centre, and further programming was in demand.

Mr Condliffe was in Bendigo at the invitation of Haven; Home, Safe, following a conference in Sydney.

“The work that Haven; Home, Safe has done is something of a model that I can learn a lot from,” he said.

“They seem to recognise the importance of building housing on the one hand, but also transitioning people into the community.”

He also appreciated the way in which clients were welcomed into Haven’s office in Forest Street.

“They first have to get to know someone as a person, and that to me is a core lesson all of us should keep in mind whenever we consider somebody,” Mr Condliffe said.

“People with criminal records, for example, should not be defined by their record. They should be defined by who they are, not what they did 20 years ago, but who they are today”.