MP's resignation a selfless act
THALIA ANTHONYFormer NSW minister Graham West resigned in a rare act of political seflessness. Photo: Richard Gosling
Justice reinvestment was the proposal. Career reinvestment was the outcome. It was a commitment to the well being of young people, especially indigenous youth, that was Graham West's downfall. While it was nothing new for a NSW minister to resign, his resignation did not follow the formula of other state ministers. It could almost be argued that Graham West was too selfless for the government. In resisting more police, prisons and penalties, West was alarmed that his parliamentary friends didn't want to follow. But this shouldn't have been a surprise in the lead-up to the law-and-order auction that will beset the state elections.
The precursor for West's epiphany was a review of the juvenile justice system, which was released last month and has since been shelved. It had been 17 years since the last review of juvenile justice, which led to the implementation of the Young Offenders' Act 1997. This piece of legislation was aimed at diverting young people from prison. The recent review found that the Young Offenders' Act had not worked in reducing the detention of young people. Rather, the number of juveniles in detention centres increased by almost 50 per cent in the past six years alone. Of the 5500 young people in detention in 2009, almost 50 per cent of them were indigenous. About 75 per cent of detainees are on remand – having been refused bail and placed in custody before any finding of guilt.
The findings on the warehousing of young people in detention centres were matched by severe criticisms of the government's law-and-order focus. The report considered law and order as the problem rather than the solution. It criticised the state government's reforms to the Bail Act 1978 that led to a rapid increase in remand rates from 3255 to 5081 between 2003/2004 and 2007/2008; the over-policing of young people (amounting to 26 per cent of all persons of interest to the police) and the increasing use of detention as a sentencing option. Ultimately the review found that not only was law and order costly, but it did not work in deterring young people from crime.
The major recommendation of the review – one held onto dearly by West – was for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. The report recommended a reinvestment of money spent on juvenile detention centres towards community projects that address the socio-economic and other underlying causes of crimes. It drew on the justice reinvestment models from the US where reinvestment had been effective in reducing crime in places such as Texas. This meant that the $348.14 million earmarked by the state government for more detention centres would instead be spent on prevention programs and services for local communities.
Yet despite law and order being a hot button issue for the election Graham West was still surprised when he faced bipartisan resistance to justice reinvestment. The government's official response to the juvenile justice review was that it would not adopt the model of justice reinvestment. However, it waxed lyrical about the virtues of crime prevention: "The government is embedding the principle of prevention and early intervention into its decisionmaking." West's more muted response was that he was "hopeful of convincing his cabinet colleagues to support a major overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system" (ABC, May 7, 2010).
A month before he resigned, and commenting on the juvenile justice review, West said: "I think people signed up to politics to make a difference and certainly one group who you want to make a difference is those people who can't help themselves, particularly children, and I think that is something that I'd like to think that everyone who got into politics supports but there's going to be different views on how we get there" (ABC, May 7, 2010). A month later he would realise that he was alone in signing up for such change. Graham West was also the only one with a different view on how to get there.
Thalia Anthony is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Technology Sydney.