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South Australia

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

Characteristics of the Program

Conferencing in South Australia is a State-wide program introduced under the Young Offenders Act 1993 (see Appendix); as in most jurisdictions, it is the second level in a three-tiered juvenile justice system which also includes police cautions and the Youth Court (Wundersitz & Hetzel 1996). Over the first four years after the introduction of the Act, about 17 percent of all juvenile matters, representing about 1500 cases and 1800 offenders, went to a conference; about half of all juvenile apprehensions resulted in court appearances and about one third were dealt with by caution (Daly et al 1998). It is now strictly a pre-court diversion program, though for a brief period in 1993-94, the Port Adelaide Youth Court was permitted to interpret the Act as allowing the use of conferencing as a sentencing option. (The Port Adelaide experience was described as 'invaluable in showing that Family Conferences are an effective means of preventing recidivism when used as a sentencing option as well as a diversionary system' (McInnes & Hetzel 1996)).

According to the Act, conferencing is available for juveniles (aged 10-17 years) who commit a 'minor' criminal offence. The Act does not specify which offences are to be considered 'minor' but over the years since the introduction of the legislation, the South Australian Police Department has set out administrative orders to guide the decision (SAPOL General Order 8980, 1998). In general, this means that cases suitable for a conference include any offence for which the youth has already been formally cautioned, any offence which the police considers desirable for the victim to participate and any offence resulting in a loss of property between $5000 and $25000. The amount of discretion police possess in deciding which cases should be conferenced, together with the fact that magistrates can also refer court matters to a conference, has meant that quite serious cases may be conferenced, including some sexual assaults (where both victim and offender are juveniles) and robberies.

At a minimum, those participating in the conference must include the offender, a specialist Police Youth Officer (PYO) and the Youth Justice Coordinator who acts as facilitator. At a minimum, two people must agree with the outcome reached in the conference, namely the PYO and the offender (SAPOL General Order 8980). Although the police possess power of veto over the outcome, this appears rarely to be exercised (Wundersitz 1996); if no agreement is reached, the matter is referred to the Youth Court where a magistrate decides the outcome. The offender is entitled to have a legal representative at the conference but this happens rarely (Wundersitz 1996). The Act states that the conference may require the offender to pay compensation (not to exceed $25,000, set by policy (Daly et al 1998)), to undertake community service of up to 300 hours and to apologise to the victim.

Implementation and administration

Conferences are convened by specialist Youth Justice Coordinators located in the Courts Administration Authority (CAA) Family Conference Team and employed by the CAA, which has administrative responsibility for the program. The Team has an office in Adelaide serving the metropolitan area and towns in the south of the State, and another in Port Augusta which has responsibility for the remainder of the State. Cases are referred to the Team by the dozen or so PYOs in the Adelaide metropolitan area; in country towns the officer in charge of each police station acts as the PYO. PYOs are responsible for all juvenile justice practices in their areas, including attendance at conferences. Their role at the conference is to describe the offence, to provide information about the victims if they are not present and to contribute to the discussion and the outcome (Daly et al 1998).

Evaluation

In 1996 the program was the subject of a comprehensive process evaluation by the South Australia Office of Crime Statistics (Wundersitz 1996). It examined the features of all 1880 cases listed for a conference in the year 1994-95 and included interviews with conference convenors, participants, lawyers, academics, police and other stakeholders.

The study looked at the characteristics of 'successful' conferences, where success was defined as a conference which was actually held and an agreement reached. It found that a higher proportion of cases involving male offenders than female offenders were rated as 'successful', no difference was found between older and younger offenders in terms of success but Aboriginality was found to be an important factor: a much higher proportion of Aboriginal offenders either did not attend or did not agree to an outcome. Offences against the person were found to be just as likely as property offences to be successful. About 80 percent of all conference outcomes were complied with in the agreed time frame. One of the principal problems identified was the non-attendance of victims: victims were present in fewer than half the conferences, though there was a very high level of satisfaction among those who did attend (Goodes 1995). Also of concern was the finding that victim supporters attended in fewer than ten percent of conferences; this was attributed to the limited resources available to undertake extensive pre-conference work. Wundersitz concluded that 'it is still too early to determine the effectiveness of the conference process, although...preliminary indications are positive' (p 123).

The South Australian program is also the subject of ongoing evaluation by Daly et al (1998), though this research has a different focus from the Wundersitz study. It draws on research on restorative and procedural justice to frame research questions about dimensions of restorative justice present in conferences, and whether perceptions of these dimensions vary by participant role, participants' demographics, the context or the kind of harm involved. It also investigates if it matters whether a conference is 'successful' for future behaviour and well-being (Daly et al 1998).

The sample of cases for this study consisted of 89 conferences in Adelaide, Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Whyalla relating to personal crimes of violence (assault, sexual assault, robbery) and the more serious kinds of property offences (break and enter, motor vehicle theft, property damage). All these conferences were observed and all offenders and victims in these cases were interviewed on two occasions; in addition, the YJCs and PYOs involved in these cases completed a self-administered survey. This research is continuing; preliminary results indicate that the great majority of both victims and offenders rated the conference process as fair, that victims were most often satisfied with their experience and that most would go to a conference again.

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