Tea, Biscuits, and Juvenile Justice Abroad

October 23, 2007

I wrote this a couple of years ago when I was living in Australia, but I like it, so here you go. Read it and think about the kinds of adventures you run into by accident – the experiences you have while traveling that let you learn more about a culture than you ever expected.

June 2005 – Part One

Sydney Opera HouseWhen I first arrived in Australia to spend a year as a student I thought about all the cultural experiences I wanted to have. I looked forward to snorkelling the reef. I wanted to bushwalk in the Outback. I thought it might be fun to pet a kangaroo.

Spending several months involved with the juvenile justice system wasn’t on my list. It wasn’t pictured in the brochures or written up in Lonely Planet. But then I should have known that becoming fully immersed in another culture wouldn’t be as simple as opening an account at ANZ and getting a pre-paid mobile. So instead of sunning at Bondi or touring the Hunter Valley, today I’m going to court.

I always expected courthouses to be forbidding, imposing. Criminals should become anxious at the sight of them. But the Bindura Children’s Court in Glebe, where I have been subpoenaed to appear, could be mistaken for a bed and breakfast.

The main administration building is a two-storey house with yellow and green awnings, set back from the street. The colourful flowerbeds and orderly front lawn remind me more of a trip to grandma’s house than the big house.

Behind the house is the actual courthouse. It’s made of concrete and glass, sort of like a large jail cell, but more influenced by a greenhouse or secret garden. A relaxed security guard smiles and shows me to the witness room. This is my first time in a courthouse for anything other than jury duty.

The guardian of the room, a hunched and wobbly older woman with a cane, asks if she can get me ‘a lovely cuppa’. I decline, and she treats me to a story about the new carpet instead. I’m surprised I haven’t been asked to leave my shoes by the front door. She calls me ‘dear’ and asks if I wouldn’t at least like a nice biscuit.

An hour goes by and I’m finally called into the courtroom. The female judge waits until I’m seated behind the prosecuting attorney, who I just met this morning. He’s representing my case on behalf of the state. I wouldn’t have thought to press charges on my own.

A 14-year-old boy is slouched in a chair on the other side of the small room. He’s in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and worn sneakers. I never would have recognised him. There’s no reason that I should. The last time I saw him it was from the back of a police car, where I ID’d him as the boy who mugged me just an hour earlier.

It was a Friday night and I was headed out to meet a friend around 7:00, in a well-lit, populated area. I saw two boys riding their bicycles directly toward me, but thought they planned to swerve at the last minute, just to give me a scare. Instead, the one in front grabbed my purse as he swooped by. My right hand sustained a few small cuts and my ring finger had to be snapped back straight.

It all happened so quickly that I hardly saw his face, but I ran after him and took note of his large size, his bright blue baseball cap and his black jacket.
That was almost nine months ago. Looking at him now, he seems smaller. He’s had a haircut. His baseball cap is gone, tied up in an orange plastic bag along with his jacket as evidence – the clothes I identified in my statement, the ones that made me sure it was him. Apparently he hadn’t thought to go home and change. Maybe he didn’t expect to get caught so soon. Maybe he didn’t have any other clothes to change into.

The night before, as I set out my good suit jacket and slacks and got my statement and other papers together to re-read, I wondered what my mugger was doing to prepare for court, if anything.

Was he scared? Would he wear a tie? Was his mother ironing a good shirt for him? Was it new? Did he only have a hand-me-downs? Would someone wake him up in the morning and help him to get ready? Did his family even know he had a court date? I couldn’t begin to imagine what his home might be like.

For weeks after the mugging I had to keep retelling the story to everyone I knew, plus credit card companies, bank managers, mobile phone customer service people and anyone else I had to deal with to put my life back in order. The part I hated most was how we found the kid.

I tried to leave it out but people would always ask, “How did they catch him? Where was he?” When I replied, “Redfern”, the next question was inevitably, “Is he Aboriginal?” I cringed every time I had to say he was. After that some people would grin as if to say, “I knew it!” while others shook their heads, sad that their stereotype was confirmed.

It made me sad either way. His background shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. It made my simple mugging into some kind of political statement. Not only was I a crime statistic, I was a foreigner swept up in Australia’s race issues.

My life was back to normal within a couple of weeks, but for him the trouble was just starting. I felt sad for him, for whatever the reasons were that made him decide to mug me. But maybe it was just my liberal views making him the victim. Maybe he really was just a punk.

In the courtroom, his lawyer, a ponytailed man from legal aid, reads out a brief bio and I get to fill in some of the blanks in my mind. My mugger is the oldest of five children. He lives with his mother. He attends a special school in Redfern just three days a week, and hasn’t had any other offences since the night of the mugging. There is no father in the picture.

As the lawyer talked I watched the boy’s mother, sitting in the row behind her son with a younger boy. She was very small, bony even. Her hair was pulled back in a messy bun, unkempt. She wore blue sweatpants and a matching sweatshirt. She looked hunched and tired, worn out, like someone always struggling to stay afloat. But she was here, and she looked concerned, and that had to mean something.

Earlier, in the hallway, my lawyer asked if I wanted to be part of the sentencing process. Before I had time to picture myself in a black robe, banging a gavel and saying “Guilty!” he went on to tell me about youth justice conferences.

If I agreed to participate, the case would be sent to a mediation centre and a meeting would be scheduled for the young man and I to sit down together with a counsellor. I would tell him how his actions affected me. He would have to admit to the crime and apologise to me. It’s a touchy-feely sort of justice, pioneered in New Zealand due to Maori concerns about the traditional court process.

New South Wales first began holding conferences in 1997 after passing the Young Offenders Act, and now holds up to 1600 a year. About 65% of victims agree to take part in the conferences and the others are held without them. It’s an option for crimes that are too severe for a caution or warning, like vandalism and theft, but not serious enough for detention, like sexual assault or serious drug offences.

My lawyer says that young offenders who are forced to identify with their victims are less likely to re-enter the criminal system. I say I’ll do it. Now that our paths have crossed and he’s forced his life into mine, I feel like I have a responsibility to do what’s best for this kid.

With both lawyers in agreement that this is the best way to handle the case, the judge allows punishment to be deferred, thanks me for my generosity, and sets a follow-up date for six weeks later.

After court is adjourned I stop to talk to the detective who took my statement the night of the mugging and my lawyer joins us to fill me in on what happens next. He thanks me for agreeing to the mediation and says it was a good option in this case.

“The kid’s a little shit, but you never know. They usually wind up crying at the end of these things.”

Continue to Part Two

One comment

  1. […] the World The best trips, tours, hostels, adventures and advice for student travelers. « Tea, Biscuits, and Juvenile Justice Abroad Juvenile Justice Abroad – Part Two October 24th, 2007 Miss Part One? Start […]

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