What is group conferencing?
Group conferencing is a program based on restorative justice principles. It is a problem-solving approach to offending that aims to balance the needs of young people, victims and the community by encouraging dialogue between individuals who have offended and their victims.
The aim of the program is to provide a community rehabilitation intervention to the Children’s Court at the pre-sentence stage, in order to:
- divert the young person from more intensive supervisory court outcomes by:
- raising their understanding of the impact of their offending on the victim, and
- utilising the resources of the immediate and extended family and/or significant others to support the young person
- reduce frequency and seriousness of re-offending of young people referred to the program
- increase victim satisfaction with the criminal justice process
- effectively integrate young people into the community following the conference process.
Who can participate in a group conference?
The Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (External link) (the Act) enables a child’s participation in a group conference if the court is considering imposing a sentence supervised by the youth justice service including probation, youth supervision order, youth attendance order, youth residential centre order or youth justice centre order. Section 414 of the Act allows the court to defer sentencing for up to four months so a group conference can be held and a report prepared for the court.
Where the court is considering a sentence of detention, the young person may be remanded in custody for up to two months to complete the group conference.
The Act states that the young person, their legal representative, the informant or other member of the police force, and the convenor must attend the conference. Those who may attend include members of the young person’s family and people of significance to the young person, the victim of the offence and people of significance to the victim or a victim’s representative, and any other person permitted to attend by the convenor.
Young people suitable for group conferencing include those aged 10 and up to 18 years of age appearing in the Criminal Division of the Children’s Court who have:
- been found guilty of offences that do not include homicide, manslaughter and sex offences, and
- committed offences that warrant a sentence supervised by the youth justice service, and
- committed offences no longer than twelve months prior to the finding of guilt, or, in exceptional circumstances, at the discretion of the court, and
- been assessed by the Department of Justice and Community Safety youth justice service, and
- consented to participate.
When determining a young person’s suitability to participate in a group conference the youth justice service will consider a range of issues that include:
- does the young person consent to participate in the program
- does the young person accept their role in the offence
- any health or other issues that might restrict the young person’s ability to engage in the program.
In undertaking an assessment to determine a young person’s suitability to participate in a group conference the youth justice service will ensure the young person understands:
- they must meet with the convenor on several occasions in preparation for the group conference
- they will be speaking in detail about the offence(s) at the group conference in front of family/significant others, the victim and their supporter(s), a police member and their legal representative
- that a report about their involvement in the program, including what happened at the conference, will be provided to the court
- that if they participate in the group conference and agree to an outcome plan, the court must impose a less severe sentence than would have been imposed if they didn’t participate in the group conference.
Victim participation in a group conference is voluntary, with victims encouraged by the convenor to be supported at the group conference by a family member, friend or a Victims Support Agency support person.
Following a young person’s referral to group conferencing, the convenor will contact the appropriate police member requesting they ask the victim for permission to provide their contact details to the convenor. If the victim agrees, the convenor will telephone the victim and explain the conference process. The convenor will also offer to refer the victim to the Victims Support Agency, which is available to support the victim throughout the group conference process.
While a group conference can be a confronting experience for all involved, attending a group conference allows the victim a real voice in determining what the young person might do to address the harm they have caused. A group conference provides a safe environment to face the young person, talk about how their actions have affected the victim and ask them questions about the offence. The convenor will invite the victim to contribute to a discussion about what the young person should do to make amends for their offending and to avoid re-offending.
Conference convenor responsibilities
It is the responsibility of the convenor to:
- identify people who should participate in the group conference
- prepare all suitable people for the group conference
- ensure that the group conference is conducted in a safe environment
- facilitate the group conference and negotiate with participants an outcome plan that sets out:
- what the young person will do to make amends for their offending, and
- how they will prevent further offending
- write a report about the group conference for the court and attend the young person’s sentencing hearing
- support the young person to complete their outcome plan
- provide a report to the court should the young person not participate in the group conference.
What happens at a group conference?
At the group conference all participants, in particular the young person and the victim, have the opportunity to tell their story of what happened and how the offence has affected them.
When all people have had the opportunity to tell their story, participants are invited to provide suggestions about how the young person might repair the harm caused by their offending and prevent further offending. This sets the expectations for the outcome plan.
The convenor takes an active role in negotiating an agreement with all participants regarding the content of the conference outcome plan to ensure the final plan is fair and reasonable, and not more onerous than what the court would have imposed upon the young person had they not participated in the conference. It is the role of the legal representative to ensure the outcome plan is consistent with the sentencing principles of the Act.
What happens after the conference?
The convenor prepares a report for the court that includes the conference outcome plan. Prior to lodging the report at court the contents of the report are discussed with the young person and their legal representative.
When sentencing the Magistrate gives consideration to a number of factors including the:
- young person’s behaviour during the period of deferral
- young person’s participation in the conference
- contents of any pre-sentence report
- contents of the group conference report.
Where the young person has participated in a group conference and agreed to an outcome plan the court must impose a less severe sentence than would have been imposed had the young person not participated in the group conference.
Completing the outcome plan
The convenor provides support to the young person when they return to court for sentencing and is available to answer any queries in relation to the contents of the report. Where the court accepts the outcome plan, the convenor will work with the identified community representative and young person to co-ordinate the implementation of the outcome plan. It is the responsibility of the young person and his/her support group to implement the outcome plan.
Where the outcome plan includes reparation to the victim, the conference convenor will support the delivery of reparation from the young person to the victim.