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CRC funded reports

New South Wales

Published in: Restorative justice programs in Australia : a report to the Criminology Research Council
Heather Strang
March 2001

Characteristics of the program

One of the first restorative justice programs in Australia was set up in Wagga Wagga NSW in 1991 by members of the NSW Police Service. It drew on aspects of the New Zealand conferencing program but differed in being run by police officers. The program ran controversially for several years (Bargen 1996) and, following recommendations in a 1994 NSW Government White Paper on Juvenile Justice, was succeeded in 1995 by a pilot scheme of Community Youth Conferences at six sites around the State. These were operated jointly by the police, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the NSW Children's Court and Community Justice Centres. In 1996 the Attorney-General's Department released a discussion paper (Report of the New South Wales Working Party on Family Group Conferencing and the Juvenile Justice System). This report recommended that a legislative scheme including 'community accountability conferences' be introduced into the juvenile justice system State-wide. As a result, the Young Offenders Act 1997 (see Appendix) became law in NSW in 1998. The Act sets out a legislative hierarchy of increasingly intrusive interventions for juveniles, ranging from police warnings to police cautions to youth justice conferences, depending on a number of legislative criteria and eligibility tests, including the seriousness and persistence of the offending behaviour (Trimboli 2000). Administrative responsibility for the conferencing program was assigned to the Department of Juvenile Justice (Bargen unpublished) and the program began operating in mid-1998 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Overview of the operation of Youth Justice Confencing in NSW
From Trimboli L 2000, An Evaluation of the NSW Youth Justice Conferencing Scheme
Sydney: New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Attorney General's Department, page 8

Under the Act, those eligible for conferencing are young people aged 10-17 who commit summary offences or indictable offences which can be dealt with summarily. These offences include assault, robbery, break, enter and steal, motor vehicle theft, theft, receiving, property damage and disorderly conduct. Offences specifically excluded are sexual offences, offences causing a death, certain drug offences, offences relating to apprehended violence orders and some traffic offences. They must have admitted their offence and consented to a conference being held.

The specific principles guiding the operation of youth justice conferences are set out in Part 5, Division 1, Section 34(1) of the Act. They draw on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Beijing Rules relating to juvenile justice and other relevant international instruments (Bargen, unpublished). The Attorney General, in his second reading speech introducing the Bill (NSW Legislative Council 21 May 1997, p 8960), described the objectives of conferencing as follows:

'[T]o encourage discussion between those affected by the offending behaviour and those who have committed it in order to produce an agreed outcome plan which restores the harm done and aims to provide the offender with developmental and support services which will enable the young person to overcome his or her offending behaviour.'

Families, extended families, victims and their supporters, police and the young person's lawyer are all entitled to attend. Victims may send a representative if they prefer not to attend themselves; if they attend they have power of veto over the conference outcome. Other people may be invited to attend, including Aboriginal community elders, interpreters and professionals such as social workers and probation officers.

Outcome plans are reached by consensus and are enforceable only when agreed to by both the victim in person and the offender: if the victim does not attend the conference, their agreement is not required. If the outcome plan is completed, no further action is taken; if no outcome plan is agreed to, or if the plan is not completed, then the matter is sent back to the referral source and may go to court. All participants at the conference must be notified about whether the plan has been completed.

Implementation and administration:

Conferencing referrals can be made either pre-court by the police or by the court as a sentencing option. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) can act as a 'referee' if there is a dispute between the police and a conference administrator regarding whether the referral meets the statutory criteria for acceptance.. At the end of the first year of operation, half of the referrals had come from police (Bargen, unpublished)

The referral is sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) where a conference administrator appoints an accredited conference convenor, who is responsible for preparing and conducting the conference. The administrator is responsible for monitoring successful completion of outcome plans. There are presently 17 administrators who are full time public servants attached to 17 DJJ offices across NSW: five are Aboriginal and one is a Pacific Islander. The conference convenors are engaged by contract and paid by the hour; they live and work in the local communities and there are currently about 480 of them in all parts of the State. There are also 80 police specialist youth officers, one for each Local Area Command in NSW, some of whose responsibilities are to identify cases to be refereed to a conference and to liaise with the conference administrators in their area. In the twelve months after June 1998, when the first conference was convened, 928 conferences were held involving 1155 young offenders; between July and November 1999, a further 827 conferences were held (Trimboli 2000). Although problems remain in NSW in getting referrals from the police, progress is being made through the appointment of specialist police officers involved in the program and continuing close liaison between police and the conferencing administrators and convenors.

Evaluation

A major process evaluation was conducted in 1999 by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (Trimboli 2000). It had two components: the first was to determine whether specific statutory requirements of the Act relating to conference attendees and conferencing time-frames had been met; the second concerned measuring participants' satisfaction with both the process and the outcome plans. The latter involved a State-wide survey of 969 participants who were either victims, offenders or offender supporters, each of whom completed a short questionnaire at the end of their conference.

The evaluation found that most of the conferences in the sample met the statutory objectives of the Act. Most achieved the Act's intention of including victims and the offender's family in the conferences, though there were problems around arranging conferences within the timeframes stipulated in the Act. The evaluation also found exceptionally high levels of satisfaction with the conference experience among both victims, offenders and offender supporters. Over 90 percent felt the conference was fair to both the victim and the offender, over 90 percent felt they had had the opportunity to express their views and had been treated with respect, and at least 79 percent said they were satisfied with the way their case had been dealt with by the justice system.

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