Community conferencing is the third tier of diverting youth away from the court and sentencing system. The rapid changes of adolescence and the tendencies for risk-taking behaviour that manifest in young people mean that the court system is often too slow, or formal to address the issues that underlie unlawful behaviour. Community conferencing is meant as both a restorative justice process and a means of rehabilitation, aiming for greater flexibility and responsiveness than the court system permits. The youth is encouraged to acknowledge responsibility and make reparation to the victim of the offence. Community conferencing is used around the world as a means of bringing youth into a community-based structure that allows for learning and growth from unlawful behaviour. It can reduce reoffending whilst promoting community ties with youth.
A youth may be diverted into the community conferencing system at the discretion of the police officer, as an alternative to formal cautioning, where the offence is considered too serious for informal cautioning. In order for this to happen, the youth must agree in writing to attend, and also to accept responsibility for their offending behaviour. Under the new section 12A of the Youth Justice Act 1997 (Tas), a youth may also be referred to community conferencing if they fail to substantially fulfil the undertakings of the caution. Courts can also order community conferencing as a diversion from sentencing, but it is court-ordered, and takes the element of self-responsibility away from the youth. If a youth fails to fulfil undertakings agreed to at a community conference, the offence that triggered the conference may be dealt with by a court, and, if the youth is found guilty, the court can impose a sentence or order.
Community conference requests must first be made by the police officer to the Secretary of the Department of Communities (s13). The Secretary then appoints a facilitator to make contact with the necessary parties (s14). The Secretary must be provided with the names and addresses of the youth, his or her guardian/s, relatives who may be able to usefully participate in the conference, people with close associations with the youth, and the victim (s13). The facilitator may also invite any other person they believe may be able to usefully participate in the community conference. The victim is not obliged to attend; however if they do choose to attend, one or more support persons may accompany them. The young person is entitled to be accompanied by one support person.
Compliance with a community conference order and any undertakings arising from that conference will see the charge before the Court dismissed (s41) and the records of the court amended (s41(2)). Nevertheless, if the youth later appears before a youth justice court, the court may well refer to previous sanctions imposed by a community conference when determining an appropriate sentence for a subsequent offence (s47(4)(b)).
The following sanctions may be imposed at a community conference (s16):
- administer a caution against further offending;
- require the youth to enter into an undertaking to pay compensation for injury suffered by the victim or any other person because of the offence;
- require the youth to enter into an undertaking to pay compensation for loss or destruction or damage to property;
- require the youth to enter into an undertaking to make restitution of property;
- require the youth to enter into an undertaking to perform a specified period, not exceeding 70 hours, of community service. Amendments will alter these provisions in the near future;
- with the agreement of the victim of the offence, require the youth to enter into an undertaking to apologise to the victim;
- require the youth to enter into an undertaking to do anything else that may be appropriate in the circumstances of the case.
An undertaking may have a duration not exceeding 12 months. If practical, the community conference should reach a decision on the sanctions to be imposed on the youth by consensus. The community conference is taken to have failed to reach a decision unless all the following persons agree to the imposition of the sanction:
- the youth;
- the police officer; and
- if the victim is present at the conference, the victim.