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The Youth Koori Court is a specialist sentencing court for Aboriginal young people charged with criminal offences, which has been proven to reduce rates of incarceration.
It aims to increase the confidence of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (‘ATSI’) community in the criminal justice system and reduce the risk factors related to the re-offending of young people.
The Youth Koori Court aims to do so by encouraging ATSI community involvement in the court process and monitoring appropriate therapeutic and other interventions to address these risk factors.
It currently sits at Parramatta, Surry Hills, and Dubbo Children’s Court.
The initiative began as a trial at Parramatta Children’s Court in February 2015, as a response to the over-representation of First Nations young people in the criminal justice system.
It differs from the standard court process in that sentencing is delayed for up to 12 months after the young person has indicated that they are willing to plead guilty or have been found guilty.
During that period, an ‘Action and Support Plan’ is developed and implemented which seeks to address the young person’s underlying risk factors for offending.
The development of the plan and its implementation is supported by a caseworker and nominated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders or Respected Persons.
The ‘Action and Support Plan’ will set out the immediate needs and long-term goals of the young person. This may include accommodation, cultural support, education, employment, substance abuse, health, disability, family relationship issues, emotional or social issues, and legal issues.
To participate in the program, the young person’s legal representative is to provide the Court with an Application for referral to the Youth Koori Court.
To be eligible, the young person must:
- have pled guilty, indicated they will enter a plea of guilty or been found guilty after a hearing,
- identify as, be descended from, or be accepted as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander,
- be charged with an offence that will be finalised by the Children’s Court,
- be likely to receive a sentence that is either a community-based order with Youth Justice supervision or a control order (i.e., the Children’s Court version of imprisonment),
- be 10 to 17 years of age at the time of the commission of the offence(s) and under 19 years of age when proceedings commenced, and
- be willing to participate.
A study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that participants were 40% less likely to receive a custodial sentence at their court finalisation when compared to Aboriginal young people who were sentenced through the regular pathway.
Furthermore, where participants ended up re-offending, they were 84% less likely to receive a custodial penalty at re-conviction.
The Process of the Youth Koori Court
Where a case is referred, it will be adjourned to the Youth Koori Court within 14 days, subject to available listings. A screening assessment will be arranged between the young person and the Youth Koori Court Casework Coordinator to assess their suitability for the process.
At the first appearance, the court will consider this screening assessment and any relevant information or submissions from people including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders or Respected Persons, the young person’s legal representative and the police prosecutor.
This will seek to comment on the availability of suitable services, the likely impact on the victim or the victim’s family, the strength of the young person’s commitment to the requirements and the availability of suitable Elders or Respected Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander persons.
The Court may decline to accept the young person due to not having capacity to accept any new cases at that time. When a young person is deemed unsuitable or excluded, they will be referred back to the general Children’s Court list for sentence.
Where a young person is deemed suitable, they will be admitted to the Youth Koori Court, and the case will be referred to a Youth Koori Court Conference to develop an Action and Support Plan.
Prior to this conference, the young person will prepare a draft plan with their casework co-ordinator.
The conference is conducted in court, and those that may be in attendance include the young person, their legal representative, members of their family, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Elders or Respected Persons, the casework co-ordinator, a police prosecutor, and the presiding Youth Koori Court judicial officer.
It may also include representatives from other government and non-government support agencies such as Justice Health or the Department of Communities and Justice.
It will seek to identify risk factors which may include homelessness, drug and alcohol issues, health issues, disengagement from education, or a lack of financial support, that may impact the young person’s involvement with the criminal justice system.
The plan will then seek to identify support services which can aide these issues, such as participation in programs or treatments.
Where the court approves the Action and Support Plan, the young person will be directed to commence it. The matter will then be adjourned for up to 12 months for sentence, which allows time for the young person to participate in and complete the plan.
If the plan is not approved, the matter may be adjourned for a second conference to discuss.
During the adjournment period, the matter will be listed before the Youth Koori Court periodically at intervals of 2 to 4 weeks to monitor progress. The plan may be revised during the process.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and Respected persons may provide cultural advice and assist the young person to understand cultural expectations and heritage throughout.
If the young person is not complying their obligations under the plan, the prosecution may seek to have them discharged from the Youth Koori Court process which could lead to the matter being adjourned for sentence in the Youth Koori Court or the general Children’s Court list.
Where a young person has successfully complied with an Action and Support Plan, the Youth Koori Court may hold a graduation ceremony following sentence.
At the sentence, the judicial officer will sentence the young person taking into consideration the steps the young person has taken to address their issues. All of the normal sentencing options are available to the judicial officer.
If the program has been substantially complied with, a non-custodial sentence is usually ordered.