Young people recent cannon fodder in the War on Drugs.

Written by Tara Schultz
// (contributor): Ben Ormsby

Recently, the Victorian State opposition announced a plan that could see young people detained in a ‘secure facility’ without having ever committed a crime.  In a media release the Victorian State Liberal Party has proposed building a 36 bed ‘secure rehabilitation facility’.  Astonishingly, they also admitted that prisons in Victoria were ineffective in actually providing services needed for rehabilitation.  However, this news will come as no surprise to lobby groups, human rights advocates and the Victorian ombudsman, who have repeatedly expressed concern at overcrowding in prisons, which they say has lead to a reduction in service access for prisoners – drug and alcohol services in particular.

Whilst rehabilitation of offenders, young or otherwise, should be an important part of a justice system seeking to decrease rates of recidivism, building a seperate rehab facility highlights that this is not about rehabilitation or justice.  If it were, they would be seeking to fix a prison system it just admitted isn’t working. The opposition’s plan is to introduce mandatory residential drug and alcohol treatment for young people whose offending is influenced by substance-related issues (in particular, ice use), despite evidence that mandatory rehabilitation is ineffective.  

The report, which specifies ‘drug abuse’ and its criteria, stipulates that the young person have ‘offending behaviour and/or are at risk to themselves or others due to substance abuse’.  This suggests that those who are innocent but deemed ‘at risk’ may also be detained and forced to undergo treatment under these new laws.  What oversight will protect vulnerable youth from harmful detention by a government that wishes to be seen as ‘getting tough’ on drugs?

It gives one pause to wonder whether those who smoke cigarettes, drink too much (particularly at Australian Sporting events where alcohol related harm and crime is high), or engage in other risky behaviours will be locked up given they would meet the criteria of being ‘at risk to themselves’.  As usual, the specific risks associated with arbitrarily designated activities are thought to justify increasingly heavy-handed intervention.  Ironic for a political party that abhors the so-called ‘nanny state’

Initially, it seems like a resurrection of previous laws (1912) allowing for the detention of people for public drunkenness for up to three years, that were repealed on the basis of human rights issues – except in the Northern Territory where a targeted (racial) mandatory treatment act was introduced to incarcerate indigenous people on the basis of ‘public drunkenness’ (something pretty common on the streets of Melbourne’s nightlife) – an act that has been shown to be ineffective, costly and generally an affront to human rights.

Under existing law, Corrections orders in Victoria usually afford people their own agency when deciding to undergo treatment.  These treatment orders give offenders the option to undertake drug and alcohol treatment as a condition of their sentence, and often keep offenders out of prison, or qualify them for return of children removed from their care.  However, under existing legislation, offenders can exercise autonomy in deciding whether to undertake treatment in the community or within rehabilitation facilities.

It could argued that locking up offenders ‘at risk’ of harming others is a good way to pre-empt crime.  But it should also be pointed out that we have justice system based on the presumption of innocence. The Liberals are proposing we start locking up people they deem to be ‘at risk’ of harming others.  One wonders what statistical analysis and ‘risk models’ will be employed to determine the potential guilt of the currently innocent. Out-of-home care leavers, the indigenous and those from low socio-economic groups are over-represented in prison systems and more often subject to mandatory sentencing than their wealthier, more privileged counterparts.  Will the state find reason to start locking up demographics that are already over-represented in the criminal system?  Is simply being ‘at risk’ of committing a crime enough to deprive people of their liberty?

Additionally, why just target drugs and alcohol? Correlation does not imply causation.  Young people who use drugs at younger ages are also more likely to be part of one of the over-represented demographics mentioned.  Why pick one trait, and not address the others? Will there be a separate facility for people with acquired brain injuries, will they lock up everyone from this ‘at-risk’ demographic regardless of whether they have committed a crime? There has already been research for the AIC into addressing risk factors for juvenile offenders

In the first instance, interventions should aim to reduce the prevalence of parental drug use, childhood abuse and neglect as well as providing adequate support services for juveniles who do find themselves in such situations.”

The state Liberal party stated in its release that: “This [secure rehab] will provide an alternative treatment pathway for young offenders who would otherwise be incarcerated without access to comprehensive drug treatment to assist them in turning their lives around”.

What is revealing about this statement is that the opposition seems to understand very clearly that prisoners are currently denied adequate access to drug and alcohol treatment services that would allow them to ‘turn their lives around’.  The question that should be asked here is whether building an additional facility to fill with (possibly innocent) drug and alcohol users is better than fixing the justice system, in which the Liberals acknowledge that “families are left to watch their children self-destruct in a system where neither the Courts nor families have the power to ensure that children get the treatment they need to address their addiction.”

Why are our young people self-destructing in prisons?  Why are the courts, and the families in our community unable to ensure that people get appropriate access to services?  Why does the Liberal party seem to be uninterested in addressing these more fundamental, systemic problems?

In an investigation conducted three years ago by the Victorian Ombudsman, prisons in Victoria were shown to have increasing rates of overcrowding, leaving prisoners unable to access services.  Overcrowding of prisons might be seen to be related to increased offending, but Liberal party policies have increased incarceration with mandatory sentencing and a reduction of suspended sentences – despite youth crime being on the decrease.

The opposition’s report repeatedly conflates those who offend with those who might have mental health issues (substance abuse disorder), while proposing a massive overreach of power that further entrenches stigma and marginalisation for people whose demographics are already over-represented in the justice system.  This is an attempt to pathologize and individualize issues created by systemic problems. Rather than address these systemic issues (e.g Out of home care,  youth service provision), it is easier to target vulnerable demographics, and further fragment a broken system.

Make no mistake.  This ploy by the state opposition is a careless and callous attempt to use disadvantaged young people as cannon fodder in the ‘War on Drugs’, or, as it should be called, the ‘War on People’.


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