The police know who they are. They know their names, where they live and what they look like.
We’re talking youth crime in our city, and why these kids often “get off with a slap on the wrist”, in the words of some of our readers.
Just recently, a 15-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy were charged over an aggravated assault at East Maitland.
Police also say another group of youths have been opening unlocked car doors in Maitland’s west at night and stealing what they find.
But for summary offences – the less serious ones – youths are entitled to penalties under the Youth Offenders Act before facing criminal proceedings. These including warnings, cautions and youth justice conferences involving their parents and often the victim.
Meanwhile the public is fed up – West ward councillor and Aberglasslyn/Rutherford Neighbourhood Watch committee member Henry Meskauskas for one.
He said youths were engaging in illegal activity and poor behaviour such as graffiti, breaking letter boxes, swearing at people and shoplifting in Rutherford.
“We know who they are,” he said. “But they know if they get caught they’ll only be spoken to. They know the system and they use it to the maximum.”
So the question is – should youths be punished more heavily for their actions to put a stop to these problems? Or should they be steered away from the justice system to avoid setting them up for a life of criminal activity?
The answer isn’t an easy one and the problem itself is even more complex.
Pushing kids away from prison
In 2015, the number of juvenile offenders not sent to prison who re-offended within 12 months was 44.7 per cent, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
But that number jumped to 66.2 per cent for youths who received prison time for their offence. Clearly sending them to jail isn’t always having the desired effect.
Maitland police officer in charge Chief Inspector Glenn Blain said most kids “grow out of” committing crime.
“They’re at a time in their life where they’re still developing, still learning,” he said, and for this reason there has been a push to keep kids away from the prison system.
In mid-2011, there were 405 kids in custody across the state. In September last year that number was just 283.
“People think locking them up is the solution,” Chief Inspector Blain said.
“But the consequence of putting them in prison is they’ll learn things from other people in there.
“Obviously for the most hardened criminals, it’s appropriate. But a lot of youths won’t re-offend.
“Some say its a soft approach, but diversionary programs are having a positive effect on the statistics.”
In the five years to September 2018, the rate of property offences by juveniles in Maitland dropped from 1479.8 per 100,000 people to 814.9.
Chief Inspector Blain said police employed targeted strategies to prevent and target youth crime and worked with a wide range of stakeholders including the Department of Education, Family and Community Services and Housing NSW to tackle the problem.
“It’s a multi-agency approach,” he said.
He also pointed out that children’s court cases made up less than five per cent of all court matters.
“I don’t want to trivialise it – it is important we address juvenile crime issues,” he said. “But in reality the bigger problem is what’s happening in the local courts.”
But Cr Meskauskas believes a tougher approach is needed. He said with a lot of the youth crime incidents in the west, it was the same kids over and over.
And while property offences by juveniles have gone down in Maitland, violent offences have gone up – from 525.9 per 100,000 in 2013 to 675.2 last year.
“Kids should be put in a situation where there is some authority,” Cr Meskauskas said. “At the moment they’re running around the streets – they will never learn.
“The government needs to pull their finger out and start doing something.”
He believes part of the problem is a lack of police resourcing and wants more cop positions allocated to the area so officers can be out catching acts as they happen.
“A lot of our [neighbourhood watch] members have said ‘I got them on CCTV and have taken it to the police but nothing has happened’,” he said. “Some members get disheartened, but I tell them not to give up – we must report every incident. We’ve got to support the police.”
Cr Meskauskas also thinks it would be good for all kids to do two years national service when they turn 20.
“Not overseas or anything,” he said. “I did two years reserves and three years national service.
“When I was growing up, if kids did something wrong they’d get sent to a boys home. They came out a different person.”
Criminals raising children
Chief Inspector Blain said there were also some youths who came from generations of criminal activity and haven’t been taught better.
“Many of these kids come from dysfunctional families, they’re left to their own devices,” Chief Inspector Blain said. “We’re looking at babies, 12 to 16 years old. They don’t choose to be raised in these conditions.
“A lot of the time it has to come back to the parents, but sometimes the parents take no responsibility at all, so the kids have got to be given support.”
Maitland pastor Bob Cotton has seen this himself through his work with youths in the church.
“If things aren’t working at home, it has such a terrible effect,” he said.
“Often there’s abuse and other criminal activity, so the kids are almost destined to repeat the same things. Criminals are raising kids. It’s so entrenched. It’s almost an impossible cycle to break.”
So what does Pastor Cotton believe is the solution?
“If I had unlimited funds and unlimited time I still wouldn’t know the answer,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of answers, but I have a lot of compassion. I understand why they do it, but there still needs to be accountability.
“The kids become little bush lawyers – they know their rights. There’s a lack of respect because there’s no consequence. There’s no deterrent for someone else not to do the same thing.
“But if they do time, they risk becoming institutionalised from a young age.
“I think anyone who says its easy to solve doesn’t understand the depth of the problem.”
What do you think? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
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