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Getting tough on youth crime -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: State governments are cracking down on youth crime. Queensland, for one, is setting up boot camps and proposing to name and shame young offenders, yet the statistics reveal that overall, the rate of youth crime is falling. Karen Percy reports.

KAREN PERCY, REPORTER: It's just a cup of coffee for most of us, but for 'Amanda', it's a fresh start. Two years ago she was joy riding with friends in a stolen car when the driver lost control. Her boyfriend died. After she recovered, she had to report to police.

'AMANDA': Just the word "theft" and "vehicle" really scared me. I felt different 'cause I thought everyone was looking at me like a criminal. I felt really scared and bad. I wish I never did it.

KAREN PERCY: 'Amanda' joined the Right Step program, one of a number of initiatives backed by the Victorian courts which aims to divert young people from detention. Now, at 18, she is working and has plans for the future.

'AMANDA': I was from a good family. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging out with a bad crowd of people and just did the wrong thing.

KAREN PERCY: Victoria offers a dual track system, where a judge can opt to allow 18 to 20-year-olds to continue in the juvenile system. Research shows that if a young person can be kept out of adult jails, there's a better chance he or she won't reoffend.

Justice Michael Bourke deals first hand with some of the state's most hardened young offenders, in all about 400 of them. Over the past seven years, as chair of the Victorian Youth Parole Board, he's come to understand how critical a child's earliest years are.

MICHAEL BOURKE, CHAIRMAN, VICTORIAN YOUTH PAROLE BOARD: Physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment. I would think at a guess that 90 per cent of the population in our system come from what might be termed a single-parent family.

KAREN PERCY: He says resources should be directed towards at-risk children as young as two or three to prevent damage later in life and he wants ordinary Australians to have a better understanding of the issues.

MICHAEL BOURKE: I think in the so-called law and order debate, I don't think they have a full realisation of how damaged these young people are. Now, I don't make excuses for them; young people, when they do offend, need to see consequences, or suffer consequences, and that's what the youth parole system is all about. But I think if people realised what bad places they come from, I think they wouldn't be so damning of them.

KAREN PERCY: Most jurisdictions in Australia offer youth support programs, but more and more, the talk at least is getting tougher.

Tonight in Brisbane, a panel of experts is looking at youth detention in Queensland, which is the only state where a 17-year-old is treated as an adult, despite criticism from the United Nations and other bodies. The state has also set up boot camps for young offenders and it wants to publicly name them.

JANET WIGHT, YOUTH ADVOCACY CENTRE: They do make mistakes that at a development level stage where they take risks and they aren't good at making judgments and we have the neuroscience to back that up. So simply criminalising that behaviour or locking them up for longer or making punishments more severe won't of itself address issues.

KAREN PERCY: The measures are getting stricter, yet the statistics show that overall, youth crime is decreasing. The most recent figures from the ABS show that offender rates rose only in Victoria and by just one per cent. Everywhere else, offender rates fell. In WA, there was a dramatic decrease of 37 per cent.

In WA, as many as three out of four young men in detention are Aboriginal.

Drama is one way for these young men to understand what's happened to them. This Perth-based program called Halo helps them learn skills and reconnect with their culture.

Most are from poor families. Many have little contact with their fathers.

FARLEY THOMPSON, HALO PARTICIPANT: My dad, he was incarcerated, he was locked up and I've never really had him around much. And when I see him, it's like, I have a good time with him, but it's not really the same when he's locked up and stuff.

KAREN PERCY: Aboriginal leaders would like to see a return to more community-based programs like the axed Indigenous Family Project.

DENNIS EGGINTON, ABORIGINAL LEGAL SERVICE OF WA: They do work, where you remove families from the system and have a relationship with families, where families buy in and want to be a part of it and of course they then have good effects too on younger siblings coming through the family. So they're not just preventative, but they're cycle-breaking as well.

KAREN PERCY: The Halo program is helping young people who've been in jail to find work. Here at the Lomwest company outside of Perth, several young men are learning how to make large-scale barriers from recycled tyres.

TIM KELLY, ABORIGINAL YOUTH MENTOR: I guess it's second chance in life, you know, tell 'em, like, there's more better things than just throwing your lives away pretty much.

KAREN PERCY: For these young men, there's now at least the chance of a normal life.

Karen Percy, Lateline.