The policing of youth is a very complex task, due to the diversity of sites and situations in which police and young people interact. Law enforcement represents only one avenue in which police and youth interact, but, it is this aspect of police-youth relations which is open to and receives the greatest criticism, and which has undergone substantial changes in recent years.
Many of the more positive forums of contact are dealt with by specialist officers or sections within the Service. Police officers from Police and Community Youth Clubs have a long, proud tradition in providing access to recreational activities and for delivering crime prevention initiatives. Also, the recently created Youth Liaison Officers have considerable interaction with the young directed towards improving police-youth relations.
These officers are likely to gain an insight into young people, which might be somewhat different to general duties officers who are more likely to have contact with young people in a law enforcement capacity. This might have an unfortunate consequence of distorting their perceptions about the propensity of all youth toward offending behaviour.
While the personal experiences of the police inform the manner in which they interact with young people, other variables and factors are also influential. Consistent with community policing initiatives adopted by the NSW Police Service, there has been increased consultation with and response to community expectations and demands have become important factors in determining the nature of the policing of youth.
Community attitudes towards youth offences vary, but generally it has been shown that community attitudes are distortions of reality. ‘Moral panics’ created or perpetrated by the media about the extent of juvenile offending are not recent phenomena.
The unfortunate consequence of the often simplistic, sensationalised reporting of juvenile offending is the call for firm, swift responses, even though the complexity of the factors related to the causation of juvenile offending require complex solutions. Such solutions include the investment of resources in programs and policies which seek to prevent offending behaviour.
The recorded reality of juvenile offending is somewhat at odds with popular beliefs. Juvenile offending is generally spontaneous, unsophisticated and less serious than adult offending. Juveniles often commit their offences close to home and in groups, which increase the chances of detection. Juveniles also tend to grow out of crime, with little or no intervention
New South Wales has seen the proclamation of legislation in recent years, which have different objectives. Some argue that the introduction of two Acts to enhance police powers and one Act to divert young people from the criminal justice system demonstrates the contradiction of approaches in dealing with juvenile offending. Others argue that use of the powers in the Children (Protection and Parental Responsibility) Act and the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Police and Public Safety) Act seeks to move young people from situations which increase the risk of them becoming a victim of crime or committing an offence.
While recent legislation demonstrates different strategies in dealing with juvenile offending it is the NSW Police Service which is required to integrate these themes into their policing of youth. This is a difficult task.
I now want to present a review of the Young Offenders Act, because it has provided the catalyst for the most substantial changes in the way the NSW Police Service deals with young offenders. It has prompted numerous developments in the Police Service and in the wider juvenile justice system consequently had a substantial impact on the policing of youth.
This is a preliminary analysis, and the information contained should not be taken as superior to more extensive analyses. The reliability of the data presented is less than desirable. Any application or interpretation of the data should be mindful of these concerns.
The Act establishes legislative alternatives to prosecution for young people responsible for the commission of a criminal offence. This has been widely recognized as a positive method for dealing with young offenders.
This is an edited version of a paper presented to an Australian Institute of Criminology Conference in Brisbane on June 18th, 1999.
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