This morning I would like to cover in such a brief time what is a huge issue for us as a society. I will give an overview of the places and the people where I work, I will ask the question "why is it that some young people engage in, and seem destined for a life of criminal behaviour", and I hope to finish with some reflections on the dilemmas we face as a Christian Community and how we might respond.
I am part of a team of 10 Prison Chaplains who visit the 13 Prisons and 3 Youth Justice Custody Centres in Victoria. I am mainly based at the Parkville sites (many will remember the old Turana Centre and associated centres).
At Parkville there are 3 centres:
Parkville Youth Residential Centre houses young boys on remand or sentenced between the age of 10 14 years and young women on remand between the age of 10 18 and sentenced young women aged 10 21.
A separate centre houses young men on remand aged 15 18.
The Melbourne Youth Justice Centre houses sentenced young men aged 15 18.
In total the 3 facilities can accommodate approximately 120 young people at any time.
Some people will also have heard of Malmsbury Youth Training Centre just past Kyneton. This centre is for young sentenced men aged 18 21. In Victoria we have a system where by an 18 21 year old will go through the Adult court but be deemed suitable for a Youth Training Centre sentence. This is based on a young persons vulnerability, type of offence and perceived commitment to rehabilitation.
The Childrens Court hears some 6000 cases each year. Of these hearings, many young people are given police warnings or given community based programs. 60% of young people who attend court do so only once. 9% of offenders are responsible for at least 30% of the children court appearances. Of this 9% most will receive community based orders where they will have access to a variety of resources and programs attending to their learning, development and behavioural needs.
The young people who end up receiving a custody sentence have either been through the system for years or have committed an extremely serious offence. I spend most days of the week with the most violent and serious of young offenders in Victoria.
The question after over 4 years in this chaplaincy settlement remains why is it that young people engage in criminal behaviour and how is it that in a society we believe is so enlightened and developed can we continue to have young people who seem unable to cope with what most of us deem to be basic social norms?
Our Gospel according to Luke gives us some helpful reflections. Fundamental to Luke is the centrality of the poor and the exploitation of the rich and powerful. The poor have had to mortgage their homes and sell their children into slavery to enable them to pay their taxes. Of these, Widows found themselves most vulnerable. A widow was dependant on her Son as her primary means of financial support. In todays Gospel reading this widow has lost her Son. Not only is she grieving for her son now dead but she also faces even deeper poverty than before. How will she live?
Very early on, Luke sets the scene for Jesus Ministry. Reading from the book of Isaiah he makes a declaration of his mission. He is sent by the Spirit to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, set at liberty the oppressed and proclaim the acceptable year of the lord. Jesus understands himself as being sent by God, sent to participate in the activity of God in the world. This activity of God Jesus understood could be found wherever there were poor, captives, blind, oppressed, in the form of proclamation, healing, liberty, and restoration.
In the heart of these passages (Luke 4 Luke 7) is the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God".
Looking upon the Widow with compassion, Jesus raises her son to life. Today we might question if such an event actually took place, or if it is only symbolism. We may well ask why we only read of this woman, for surely she was one of many widows around the world who had such a need. What of them? What is important for me is.
Jesus understands and has clearly articulated his mission,
He is filled with compassion,
However we understand the symbolism or reality of the raising of the dead son, Jesus is responding to the human need that arises from poverty.
There is good news for the poor!
Prison Chaplains live in a complex environment. We see and hear things that confront us with our preconceived ideas about crime and the perpetrators of criminal behaviour. We struggle on the one hand with the feeling of "Lock them up and throw away the key" and on the other being filled with compassion as we listen to and feel the stories of great sadness, neglect abuse and poverty.
In a recent research paper it was discovered that the 4000 or so adults in custody in Victoria represent only 13 area codes. We dont need to imaging where these area codes might be. Research indicates a number of fascinating social and environmental factors relating to young offenders.
There is always an exception to the rule, but typically a young offender has been immersed in the following.
Social and economic poverty and depravation highlighted by lack of or extremely low income, poor housing and unemployment.
Antisocial and erratic upbringing and family environment. Here there is the absence of positive parenting or adult role model and the presence of negative parenting and harsh behaviours.
Exposure to drug and alcohol abuse, criminal activity, violence and sexual abuse.
Detached relationships and broken homes, often leading to being removed from families and spending their life moving from one situation to another, foster care to residential units to the streets. No one wants them!!!
Low educational ability and lack of schooling.
Stigma with crime and becoming committed to the role society has placed on them. Association with deviant behaviour reinforces their actions as normative behaviour leading to the career criminal.
On top of this is the social structure of things.
Huge distinctions in our society between the poor and the wealthy,
Fear of crime,
Community perceptions reinforced by the labelling and bad news stories perpetuated in the media.
Our Governments then compete with each other over who is coming down more heavily on deterring criminal behaviour. Stories of break outs, release of serious offenders and temporary leave programs are responded to with the need for get tough programs.
Research shows however that getting tough and deterrents do not work. For the young people I encounter, they have already lost everything they have nothing else to lose. These are not young people who have made some silly mistakes and need to be taught a lesson. They are the poor, they are the oppressed, they are blind, imprisoned and in many cases they have already died in a sense they have given up on life because they have experienced life as giving up on them. There is no place for them in society and the underlying social issues that have lead to them finding their way into the system remain unattended to or worse still, is exacerbated by our current system in society.
In our current setting society demands that an offender receives their just desserts. But what is just? As a society we also have a responsibility to ask questions about our community, to become aware of and be honest about the huge distinctions that exist, about the sub sets in our society that are emerging, the ghettos that are developing. We have a responsibility to ask how it is that a young person can be exposed to emotional, physical and sexual abuse in care let alone in the home.
Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying society will be judged on how it treats its prisoners.
Jesus understood himself as being sent the activity of God could be found wherever there were poor, captives, blind, oppressed, in the form of proclamation, healing, liberty, and restoration. The signs of the kingdom is good news for the poor, it means release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed. The acceptable year of the lord means PEACE. Gods Judgement on the world is his Shalom, his Peace.
There is no short cut to alleviate human suffering. As chaplains in our prisons we all wish we had a magic wand that we could wave to change the situation for our residents. What we all find is that there are moments when we listen and are filled with compassion. When we respond out of our compassion there are moments, in what normally is a violent and abusive world, of peace. There is a moment of the possibility of hope and of life, life that could be different, not only in the future but in the present. Punishment attends to societies need for someone to be given their just deserts.
Justice on the other hand demands that society attend to addressing the core of human need. Luke understood this as addressing the poor. Jesus understood this as Gods activity and his mission. The Good News, the signs of the Kingdom; all are valued, all have a place, none are despised or rejected.
When Jesus saw the widow, he was filled with compassion. It started with Compassion.
Peace be with you.