Keeping young people out of jail

The criminal justice system can be a frightening, overwhelming and complicated maze and one that most people generally want to avoid.

A group of researchers from Canberra has chosen Cowra as the site of an exploratory study looking for ways to stop people, particularly young people, from ending up in jail.

After beginning the ethics, community consultation and approval process in March last year, the team from the Australian National University (ANU) will soon begin their research project, working with the community through workshops and questionnaires to discover issues that could ultimately lead to recommendations for reducing the number of young people in gaol.

The research, funded by a three-year Australian Research Council Grant, will explore the potential of 'Justice Reinvestment,' an approach to addressing crime which emphasises concentrating on health and social services.

Research Fellow Dr Jill Guthrie, along with other members of the research team, held a series of meetings last year with several people involved with the project, including representatives from the Cowra Shire Council, Cowra Aboriginal Land Council, Dr Louise Baker, representatives from the PCYC and Judge Peter Johnstone, President of the NSW Children's Court.

A Community Forum held in mid-December saw several topics and ideas raised, particularly in relation to the recruitment process.

"Everyone was very engaged, very helpful and the meeting certainly went better than we could have hoped for," Dr Guthrie said.

"A lot of ideas were discussed on how we can encourage people to self-recruit."

Beginning the recruitment process around March, Dr Guthrie said the next step will essentially involve "encouraging a conversation" with young people, aged approximately between 16-24 years on their experiences and their understanding of the criminal justice system.

Working with local high schools and various organisations including police, health and council, the team will be distributing information flyers then conducting interviews and holding focus groups to gather their information.

"There's a few cohorts we're looking at; these include all young people living in Cowra, even those who haven't had contact with the criminal justice system; they might include people who've been in the criminal justice system but are now living back here and young people who are currently away in detention" Dr Guthrie said.

"We'd like to get an idea through the town of what the town would like to keep its young people here and how to return and retain young people back who have been away in detention - what needs to be set up in order for this to happen?"

Under Justice Reinvestment, Dr Guthrie said, with the permission of the community, prison is considered a last resort to be used for dangerous and serious offenders, not for those who have committed less serious offences.

"It actively shifts the culture away from imprisonment to restoration within the community" she said.

Researchers found Cowra an 'ideal case study site' partly due to its stable population and middle range crime profile, and because its economy does not benefit directly from a prison.

While Dr Guthrie said that ideally the three year project will assist policy makers and see Cowra become a town with Justice Reinvestment agreements, there are no promises being made.

"It is hypothetical, there's no promise of any money and when we take it to policy makers they may not even be interested so it's important everyone's clear on that," she said.

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