Juvenile Justice Abroad – Part Two

October 24, 2007

Miss Part One? Start Here

I am a victim. I know I am because people keep telling me so. The police call me ‘the victim’. The judge called me ‘the victim’. The counsellor who rings to schedule the youth justice conference asks if she is speaking with ‘the victim’. My official statement labels me ‘the victim’.
It jars me every time I hear it because I have trouble seeing myself this way.

Immediately after the mugging, I was ‘the shocked’. That night, missing out on dinner plans and a party I was supposed to attend, I was ‘the annoyed’. Over the weekend, with all of my credit cards, mobile and house keys gone, I was ‘the inconvenienced’. But I never saw myself as a victim. Yet that’s what they all insist on calling me, and eventually, through the language of bureaucracy and forms, I do begin to feel victimised.

The boy, on the other hand, is not labelled ‘the mugger’ or ‘the deviant’ or ‘the criminal’. No. He is ‘the young offender’ as if his crime was incessant swearing or wearing an inappropriate t-shirt. The stigma has been taken away from him, so I wonder, if he’s an offender, can’t I simply be ‘the offended’?

The most recent reminder I’ve had of my victim status is a Youth Justice Conference notification. The cover letter signed by Conference Administrator/Manager Michael Dyer states, “I have been informed that you are the victim of this offence. As the victim, you are entitled to meet the young offender and to seek resolution for the harms you have suffered because of the offence.”

I hadn’t realised that I was suffering, so this is new information for me. Maybe I’ve somehow blocked out my pain and need to reconnect with it.

I move on to a pamphlet entitled “Making Complaints About a Youth Justice Conference”. The fact that they’re already letting me know how to express my dissatisfaction with an event that hasn’t yet taken place doesn’t fill me with confidence. I set it aside.

The “Information for Victims” handout is more warm and fuzzy. It explains that during a youth justice conference, “the emphasis is on healing the hurt and overcoming offending behaviour rather than handing out punishment.”

Now that I know I’ve suffered, “healing the hurt” sounds like a great idea.

The handout says I’m supposed to ask myself, “What action by the young person would heal the hurt she or he has caused to me, and the community.” Well, gosh. Yard work probably isn’t what they had in mind. Maybe having him earn the money to pay me back the whopping $15 that was in my wallet, but no, I don’t want that either.

The thing is, I know that he hasn’t caused me as much hurt as he’s caused himself. He’s gotten himself a juvenile record. He has spent months dealing with police officers and lawyers and court dates. And while 28% of offenders who take part in one of these conferences never re-enter the justice system, 72% do, so maybe this was just his gateway crime. I can’t imagine he’s going to come out of this feeling better about himself, no matter how much tea and biscuits they push our way.

I’ve never studied child psychology or juvenile crime. I don’t know what he needs. If I had to guess, I would say what he needs is a plan, somewhere to go, something to do with himself. He needs someone to check up on him. Not a parole officer, but a mentor, someone to help him make the right choices, someone who can give him hope.

The court doesn’t hand out guardian angels though, so I try to think of the next best thing. Nothing comes to mind. I’ve never been a teenage boy, or a young offender, and I have no idea what to do with either. I’m hoping somebody more qualified will.

*        *        *

Opera HouseI meet Liz Brown, my appointed conference convenor, at Gloria Jean’s in the Broadway shopping centre, just across the street from the scene of the crime. When we made the appointment by phone she told me to look for a middle-aged woman with red hair. I arrive first and take a seat, but spot her soon after, standing just outside the shop. I wave and she comes in to join me.

These pre-conference meetings, along with the conferences themselves, are always held in what Liz refers to as “neutral territory”. I was not asked to come to her office, but to pick a place that would be comfortable and convenient to me. She says that when we get together with the boy and his mother it will probably be at a community centre or school. There might even be tea and biscuits, but she can’t promise.

Liz began her career working in juvenile detention centres in the early 90s and has just recently completed the training required to mediate the conferences between victims and young offenders. In fact, this is her first. She’s excited about this opportunity to keep more kids out of the detention centres, allowing them to remain with their families, and seems very concerned with the “healing” part of the process.

“Really, we want you to feel like you have closure with this,” she tells me.

“It was nine months ago, I feel pretty closed,” I say.

“Yes, you seem pretty together,” she laughs, then shrugs her shoulders apologetically. “I can still offer you this pamphlet.” She hands me an olive green paper that reminds me once again, “You Have Been A Victim”. It offers phone numbers for counselling hotlines and information about how I should be feeling.

I ask Liz if she has met the boy yet, or if she knows much about him. She hasn’t met him, and hasn’t actually had time to read the whole case file either, other than to get the basics down. There are more than 30 caseworkers handling youth conferences just in the Sydney area, around 400 in New South Wales altogether, and they all stay busy.

“Is there that much youth crime?” I ask her.

“Unfortunately, yes,” she says. She looks a little defeated for a moment, shaking her head at the thought of it, but then smiles again and asks me to give her the dates when I will be available for the conference. I am amazed by this resilience, the fact that she has worked in juvenile crime for years but can continue to be cheery and optimistic about the process. I hope it’s because she’s seen some success stories.

Before rushing to her next appointment Liz asks me to think about what punishment, or “outcomes” I would like to discuss at the conference. She says my wishes and recommendations will be taken into consideration when she sits down with the young man and draws up an “action plan” with him, outlining the steps he must take to accept responsibility and make amends for his crime.

I ask her about counselling or mentoring. I feel petty demanding that he do community service because I spent a weekend without a credit card, when the bigger issue could be that his home life is dysfunctional, or possibly even damaging and unhealthy.

“Well, that could be something that comes out during the discussion, and we’ll take it all into consideration,” she says.

It all sounds happy and nice, and I do believe Liz is doing her best to help, but for all the talk about this not being about punishment, I start to think that even after all of this effort and time, this kid could still fall through the cracks, and never have anybody really hear him. I’ll have to wait until our meeting to find out.

Continue to Part Three


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