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CRC funded reports


Published in: Restorative justice programs in Australia : a report to the Criminology Research Council
Heather Strang
March 2001

Characteristics of the Program

Conferencing for juvenile offenders was introduced to Queensland on a trial basis as part of the 1996 amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act 1992 (see Appendix). Participants normally include the young person, a family member or caregiver, the victim or their representative together with a victim supporter, the referring police officer and two conference convenors. Solicitors may also attend, though in the role of supporter and protector of rights rather than legal adviser, and do so in about ten percent of cases. Police may refer a matter to a conference when the young person admits the offence and the victim consents; courts may make either an indefinite court referral to a conference without making a sentence order or alternatively may make a pre-sentence referral (see Figure 2) . As well as juveniles referred under the Act, the programs also accept referrals for adult offenders under an administrative arrangement with police (Palk et al 1998). The Queensland program differs from all other jurisdictions in requiring the victim's consent to a conference being held, regardless of whether or not the victim chooses to attend.

Figure 2: Community Conference Flow Chart

Implementation and administration

Conferences are the responsibility of the Youth Justice Program, Families, Youth and Community Care Queensland, which funds all programs and trains and accredits all conference convenors. Implementation of the conferencing program has so far entailed four sites, each using a different model of service delivery. The Ipswich program is operated directly by the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Branch of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General. The Logan City program south of Brisbane is operated by a welfare-oriented non-government organisation, Youth and Family Services (YFS), which has strong community links. The Palm Island program is run by local respected Indigenous persons and elders who form the island's Community Justice Group, but local community problems have meant that no conferences have been held since 1998. In early 1999 another program, based in Cairns, was established by Family, Youth and Community Care Queensland to cover Far North Queensland. Conferences are convened from time to time outside these areas also.

In all these sites a great deal of effort goes into pre-conference work involving detailed discussions with the offenders, their parents and the victims. The aim is to explain the process, to obtain details on the case, and to help participants prepare for it by describing what happens and exploring outcome possibilities. At the beginning of the conference, formality is engendered by the police officer being asked to 'read out the charges', whereupon the officer reads from the official complaint and the offender is asked 'Do you admit to these charges?'.

In the first 12 months of operation (1997-98), there were 111 conferences (ten for Palm Island, 49 for Ipswich and 52 for Logan) and in the second year around 200, involving about 300 offenders. About half of all conferenced matters concerned theft and break and enter offences, another quarter were other property matters and almost 20 percent were violent offences (Hayes et al 1998). All told, in the period April 1997 to January 2001, 618 conferences were conducted State-wide, involving 826 offenders.

The 1999 State budget provided recurrent funding of $900,000 for conferencing, and Family, Youth and Community Care Queensland sees this decision as marking the transition of conferencing from a pilot to a permanent feature of the Queensland youth justice system. This level of funding is not sufficient to provide the program State-wide, but has preserved existing programs and enabled all courts in south-east Queensland dealing with juvenile matters to refer cases to conferencing (Family, Youth and Community Care Queensland, unpublished).


An independent team from Griffith University conducted an evaluation of two of the three pilot program sites in 1997-98 (Hayes et al 1998, Palk et al 1998). (Owing to the small number of conferences on Palm Island and logistical problems in visiting the site, the report excluded this program). Data for the study were derived from structured and unstructured interviews with conference participants immediately after the conference, and a telephone follow-up interview two months later; there were also interviews with key stakeholders, together with an analysis of program financial data held by the Department of Justice and official police and court data.

The study paid close attention to the costs of the pilots and concluded that they ranged from approximately $200 to about $900 per case ( a detailed analysis appears on pages 43-48 of the report). Hayes et al observe that 'The perfunctory nature of police and even court appearances may turn out to be cheaper than conferencing but at a higher social cost for victim-offender reconciliation and community development...Part of the intrinsic success of the Queensland pilot appears to lie in the considerable preparatory work done by convenors which may result in a loss of comparative [financial] advantage with other dispositions' (p 48).

The study concluded that 'community conferencing has been highly successful in regard to the core goal of victim-offender reparation' and that '[P]articipation satisfaction levels were consistently high across a range of conferencing issues' (Hayes et al: 6). However, it observed that the number of referrals to the program was very low, which they attributed to the trial nature of the program, as there appeared to be strong support for it by the criminal justice community. The report recommended that conferencing services be made available State-wide and that the scope of referrals to conferencing be widened to allow all victims of juvenile crime to opt for a conference.

A 'commentary' on the evaluation report prepared in 1998 by the Juvenile Justice Program, Families, Youth and Community Care (unpublished), recorded some reservations expressed by stakeholders, especially concerning the report's recommendation that victims should be automatically given the right to a conference, regardless of the seriousness of the offence or the circumstances of the offender. There were also concerns about the cost of conferencing (though the evaluators observe that 'no per case estimates for court or caution could be obtained' for comparative purposes (Hayes et al p 43)). However, both the police and the government departments express general support for the existing programs.


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