Serious problems with Victoria’s youth justice system were flagged with successive governments for more than a decade, and the recent dysfunction is the result of their inaction, according to a former deputy Ombudsman.
The Victorian Government has introduced changes to the youth justice system after 15 inmates broke out of the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre in central Victoria on Wednesday.
John Taylor worked at the Ombudsman’s office between 2004 and 2014, and recommended a number of modifications to the system during his time.
In 2010, he helped write a report into the now severely riot-damaged Parkville Youth Detention Centre that recommended the facility be completely replaced.
The report came out while Labor was in power, but just a month before Ted Baillieu’s Liberal government took over.
“We found appalling conditions not suitable for juveniles to be detained in,” he said.
“We made the recommendation and now you see the fall-out from it. By not rebuilding Parkville in a more suitable environment, we now have these problems.”
‘Failure’ to recognise change in offenders
Mr Taylor, who has worked on youth justice issues across Australia, said the problems were not unique to Victoria.
“But it’s a problem that should have been recognised and certainly should have been dealt with sooner,” he said.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has been strong in his criticism of the Government’s handling of the youth justice, calling Melbourne “the Johannesburg of the South Pacific” on Wednesday, and urging Premier Daniel Andrews to sack minister Jenny Mikakos.
But Mr Taylor said he did not believe the current problems were the fault of an individual government.
“I think it’s been a failure overall in recent years to recognise that the detainee population among young offenders is changing,” he said.
This week’s escape was the latest in a number of riots at youth prisons in the state that last year culminated in a number of youth detainees being sent to Barwon Prison, a maximum security adult facility.
As part of the Government’s changes to the system, an additional 40 adult prison staff will take up roles in youth detention facilities
Ms Mikakos, the Minister for Youth Affairs, defended the Government’s decision to go ahead with construction more than two years after taking power from the Coalition.
“We started the business case last year, these things do take time, because it is going to be a high security facility,” she told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“It needs to be a properly thought through and designed, in terms of the location, what it’s going to look like, how we’re going to equip to deal with what has been a very changed offender profile in recent years.
“I know people can be very impatient with how the wheels of government move sometimes, as can I, but we need to make sure these things are done methodically.”
‘Recipe for exactly what happened at Don Dale’
The ABC understands the new prison guards will be armed with batons and pepper spray, a move Mr Taylor supported.
“My view is you’re now dealing with a small cohort of violent young offenders … prisons are full of people like that, and the department should be taking responsibility to ensure that once confined there are no opportunities to escape and cause problems,” he said.