Wimmera lawyer wants improved program for young offenders

Victoria Legal Aid Wimmera regional office managing lawyer Julia Barling said the region's children were deprived of diversion programs

Victoria Legal Aid Wimmera regional office managing lawyer Julia Barling said the region's children were deprived of diversion programs

A WIMMERA lawyer has called on the Department of Justice to improve early intervention programs for young offenders in regional areas.

Victoria Legal Aid Wimmera regional office managing lawyer Julia Barling said the region's children were deprived of diversion programs.

While people attending Children's Courts in metropolitan Melbourne or a select few large regional centres can access youth diversion programs, Mrs Barling said they were not offered in the Wimmera.

"It is really disappointing," she said.

"In other areas diversion programs have been really successful.

"There is a real demand for it."

Youth diversion plans are aimed at dissuading people from criminal behaviour.

Participants avoid a criminal record and are linked with support programs intended to address their issues and motivate them against re-entering the justice system.

Mrs Barling said youth diversion programs would be ideal for first-time offenders accused of petty crimes.

"Sometimes we're able to convince the police to give that person a caution, which means the charge is withdrawn and they are given an official warning by the police not to do it again," she said.

"But there isn't any follow-up from that."

Otherwise, she said children found themselves in the justice system, where they were likely to gain a criminal record.

Mrs Barling said having a criminal record could be enough to limit a person's opportunities later in life.

She said the risk of re-offending was also heightened with every presentation to court.

"If there is no support in that early stage, the young person is more likely to commit further offences and come back to court for more serious matters, which is a massive thing for that person, for their family and their community," she said.

"In the adults' Magistrate's Court there is a formal diversion program available, but not for children, which is what is so frustrating.

"It is really unfair for young people not to have these opportunities because of where they happen to live."

Victoria Legal Aid has been lobbying for a formal diversion framework for the Children's Court to be made available statewide.

Even if the population in the Wimmera was not big enough to warrant a full-time diversion program, Mrs Barling said there was still scope for an outreach program.

"Anything is better than nothing," she said.

"We want to head people in a more positive direction and for that to start as early as possible.

"Some people would consider it a soft option, but the long-term benefits would have to outweigh the short-term satisfaction of punishing offenders."

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