Pilot program aims to keep Echuca Aboriginal young people out of judicial system

By Charmayne Allison

THE judicial system can be a vicious, relentless – above all, hopeless – cycle.

Once you get in, it can seem nigh on impossible to get out.

According to the stats, this is a reality for far too many in the twin towns – including Echuca-Moama's Indigenous young people.

But thanks to strong backing from the local community, Echuca has been chosen as the launch site for a pilot cautioning program aiming to keep local Aboriginal youth out of the judicial system.

And at home, on-country, right here in Echuca.

“The upsetting thing is, Aboriginal young people who enter the justice system will often go to juvenile justice detention centres which are off-country,” Njernda acting chief executive Aaron Wallace said.

“When this happens, they are disconnected from their family, they're disconnected from their community and from all the services that are available to them.

“And generally when people enter the system they re-enter and it's very hard to break that cycle. So hopefully this project will divert them from that.”

As part of the program, Aboriginal young people aged 10 to 17 will be issued a police caution where appropriate.

They will then be referred to a community panel who will identify the drivers of offending and provide community support to address the drivers in a cultural and community context.

All cases will be dealt with on an individual basis with the response tailored to suit each person's needs.

The community panels will not be conducted by police, although a police representative will be a panel member.

“We'll talk to them about their families, about what is causing them to break the law and what are some of the issues young people are facing,” Mr Wallace said.

“Not only that – we will be able to look at what services we can provide to help them.”

The Victoria Police Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer (ACLO) will provide support to police and community panel members to ensure success.

While police cautioning is available to everyone in the community, this program differs in its use of a community panel to provide ongoing support to young people.

The program has been launched by Victoria Police in conjunction with Njernda and the Ballarat and District Aboriginal Co-operative (Bendigo).

There are two other pilot sites earmarked for launch soon – one in Bendigo, one in Dandenong.

But thanks to strong support from the local community, Echuca will be the first off the mark.

“Historically, Aboriginal people have been over-represented in the judiciary system and the court system so we're going to try to slow that down,” acting inspector Bruce Simpson.

“This is a part of self-determination. We're really keen for the community to show us the lead-in and how we deal with the young people that have fallen foul of some offences.”