A promis­ing life’s slide into crime and drugs

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD FER­GU­SON

A tall, young man swings his ham­mer into the front door of a watch re­pair shop in Mel­bourne’s CBD, in broad day­light. His face is cov­ered and he’s wear­ing gloves. He starts smash­ing the glass cab­i­nets to get to the goods. It is his 18th birth­day.

With two as­so­ciates, he shoves watches into a sports bag and runs out to a car wait­ing for them around the corner, while ter­ri­fied staff and cus­tomers cower in a tiny back­room.

The ham­mers come out again 90 min­utes later, nearly 10km away, at a Coburg jew­ellery shop, and it’s the same story.

Only this time, some cus­tomers come out from the back­room and tackle the youth and one other young man to the ground. An­other rob­ber runs away with $135,000 worth of gold.

Vic­to­ria’s County Court was told the youth had a full blown ice habit by the time of the 18th birth­day and he took some of the drug be­fore the rob­beries. The pro- ceeds of the rob­bery were not to be his; he had been of­fered a mo­tel room and “girls”.

This birth­day ram­page re­sulted in the young man land­ing four years in an adult jail last April.

If the crime had hap­pened a day ear­lier, he would have been back to the chil­dren’s court where he would have re­ceived a much softer pu­n­ish­ment, de­spite be­ing on bail at the time for a slew of of­fences.

He had al­ready been in and out of the chil­dren’s court on seven dif­fer­ent charges in the pre­vi­ous

year and been re­manded in cus­tody twice.

The Week­end Aus­tralian has tracked the jour­ney of this young man as Vic­to­ria is gripped by a youth crime cri­sis that has lead­ers scram­bling for ways to pre­vent young men from African coun­tries end­ing up in jail.

Politi­cians and po­lice are des­per­ately seek­ing to make Mel­bur­ni­ans feel safe from the threat of vi­o­lent crime; while the courts are com­ing un­der pres­sure to show the pub­lic they’re will­ing to lock up crim­i­nals.

While he can­not be iden­ti­fied due to his time in the chil­dren’s court, the man’s case shows how some young peo­ple, from wartorn African coun­tries, strug­gle through the ed­u­ca­tion and jus­tice sys­tems.

Sev­eral years ago this young man was the cap­tain of sev­eral lo­cal and school sports teams. He was born in South Su­dan and came to Aus­tralia as a refugee aged about seven, with sib­lings and ac­com­pa­nied by rel­a­tives who are now his de facto par­ents.

He came from a strict fam­ily — a house­hold of 10 chil­dren — that val­ued ed­u­ca­tion. None of his sib­lings have been in trou­ble with the law; three of them are at uni­ver­sity.

But as a teenager he ran off the rails. The young man’s 21-yearold brother told The Week­end Aus­tralian adult jail was the right place for him.

“It’s prob­a­bly best for him that he can ac­tu­ally take his pu­n­ish­ment and he can do the time … he was com­ing in and out of youth de­ten­tion and lockup just do­ing the same thing over and over,” the brother said.

A chil­dren’s court psy­chol­o­gist gave ev­i­dence that the boy had been no­ticed in mid-2015 by youth gangs who had seen him fight­ing in so­cial me­dia videos. He didn’t join the gangs, but agreed to pro­vide them with “back-up” if they needed it.

The court was told he met sev­eral mem­bers of the no­to­ri­ous Apex gang through older boys but he was never a mem­ber of the now-dis­banded group.

His rin­gleader, a Mid­dle East­ern man who pleaded guilty to his in­volve­ment in the rob­beries sev­eral months af­ter the boy was sen­tenced, was re­ported at the time to be linked to the Apex gang.

It was around this time that he be­gan to ap­pear reg­u­larly in front of the chil­dren’s court.

The boy was first ar­rested in 2015 and charged with rob­bery when he grabbed some­one’s mo­bile phone. He would be ar­rested for as­saults, phone thefts and mis­han­dling stolen goods at least an­other six times.

He ap­peared in the chil­dren’s court on seven charges. He was bailed for all but two of them.

He was re­manded in cus­tody for five weeks in 2016 af­ter be­ing found in a McDon­ald’s car park with stolen goods in his car. And he was re­manded again, one week af­ter his re­lease, for steal­ing a car and a mo­bile phone.

The boy got into fights in youth de­ten­tion and showed lit­tle in­ter­est in youth jus­tice’s many at­tempts to help him get his life back on track.

It was only weeks af­ter he was last re­leased from youth de­ten­tion that he par­tic­i­pated in the two rob­beries that would see him land in the adult jail. He was on sev­eral sets of bail at the time.

“He would be fine when he came home, but then he would go out and the po­lice would come to the door again,” his brother said. “But I never thought he would do what he did at the end.

“I’m not sure how it’s go­ing to work out for him in the end but for any­one who com­mits such crimes, that’s what they de­serve, es­pe­cially with his pat­tern of be­hav­iour.”

The boy initially strug­gled to fit into Aus­tralian life but, af­ter six months, he moved to a Catholic school that has spe­cialised pro­grams for Su­danese kids.

He did well for a while, par­tic­u­larly through sport. But in teenage years he be­gan smok­ing cannabis and hang­ing out with older Su­danese boys.

The boy started tak­ing ice reg­u­larly from Oc­to­ber 2015. The boy told the court he took part in the rob­beries to clear a $20,000 ice debt but phone in­ter­cepts played in court heard him be­ing of­fered four mo­tel rooms and girls by a gang rin­gleader.

The pre­sid­ing judge at his county court sen­tenc­ing in April said his long crim­i­nal record and the vi­o­lent na­ture of his most re­cent crime meant he had to stay in adult jail.

“I do not en­joy sen­tenc­ing some­one of your age to adult jail, but you have pushed it too far,” the judge said.

A for­mer teacher at the boy’s school told The Week­end Aus­tralian he was sur­prised the youth had come off the rails: “He was an ab­so­lute leader … he had all those lead­er­ship qual­i­ties at a young age which cer­tainly didn’t give us any in­di­ca­tion things would go wrong down the track.’’

The boy be­came heav­ily in­volved with a lo­cal sports club that helped him fur­ther in­te­grate but prob­lems in Year 11 led to his down­fall. “He be­came re­ally dis­en­gaged at school, he re­ally didn’t like school, and then he started get­ting into a lot of trou­ble with the law,” the teacher said.

A lot of South Su­danese chil­dren were vis­ual learn­ers and needed more sup­port in Years 7 to 10. “If you haven’t got a job, you’re dis­en­gaged at school; you don’t have a sports club that can re­ally sup­port you with your is­sues … you’ve got noth­ing,” his brother said. “This is not just a South Su­danese com­mu­nity prob­lem, it’s an Aus­tralian prob­lem. We all need to put our heads to­gether.”

The boy will be el­i­gi­ble for pa­role next year.

Catholic Church dea­con Ge­orge Piech Meat, a South Su­danese refugee him­self, has set a rapid-re­sponse sys­tem once young of­fend­ers’ terms are up. “We put the young peo­ple im­me­di­ately in con­tact with Catholic so­cial ser­vices and the St Vin­cent de Paul so­ci­ety for hous­ing and cloth­ing. By get­ting in there fast and giv­ing them the sup­port they need, we have found these young peo­ple have ended up very well set­tled.”

‘By giv­ing them the sup­port they need, these young peo­ple have ended up very well set­tled’ GE­ORGE PIECH MEAT CATHOLIC CHURCH DEA­CON

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.