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Project on Conferencing and Sentencing (SAJJ-CJ)

Study context

The Project on Conferencing and Sentencing (SAJJ-CJ) has gathered and analysed data on the race and gender politics of new justice practices in Australia (South Australia and Queensland) and New Zealand. Sub-studies have included an archival analysis of sexual offence cases finalised in Youth Court and by conference and formal caution; interview studies of victim advocacy groups and of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women's views on restorative justice in the response to sexual assault and domestic or family violence; and observational and interview studies of urban Indigenous sentencing courts and other justice practices in more remote areas of Australia.

The Project Director is Kathleen Daly, Professor, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Brisbane. Daly was assisted by Sarah Curtis-Fawley, Brigitte Bouhours, Leanne Weber and Rita Scholl. The project was initially funded by an Australian Research Council Large Grant (2001-03) ($184,000), augmented by support from the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, which sponsored Curtis-Fawley to live and work in Australia from October 2001 to October 2002. The project received considerable in-kind support and cooperation from the South Australian Courts Administration Authority, South Australian Police, and South Australian Justice Data Warehouse.

Archival analysis of sexual offence cases finalised in court, by conference, and by formal caution in South Australia for young offenders, 1995-2001

Is family conferencing, a form of restorative justice, an appropriate response to sexual offences? Or do court proceedings deliver greater justice for victims?

The South Australia Juvenile Justice and Criminal Justice Research Group (SAJJ-CJ) began field research in October 2001 to examine this question. From October to December 2001, documents and data were gathered from the South Australia Justice Data Warehouse (an electronic archive of criminal justice system data), together with files and reports held by the Youth Court, the Family Conference Team, and the South Australian Police. From January 2002 to May 2003, a team of three researchers read and analysed the documents, and coded and prepared them for analysis. Two reports were issued in 2003: the Final Report, which provided the results of the archival analysis, and the Technical Report No. 3, which described the research process. These reports are now superseded by SAJJ-CJ Technical Report No. 3, 2nd edition (November 2005). This recent edition describes the Sexual Assault Archival Study (SAAS) of sexual offence cases disposed in Youth Court, by conference, and by formal caution over a 6.5 year period (1995-2001) in South Australia. It shows how the research was carried out and presents selected results of SAAS. The findings supersede those given in the Final Report (August 2003) and reflect corrections to the dataset. New Appendices have been added, which detail the legal contexts of cases and how variables were created and coded.

There are only two jurisdictions in the world, South Australia and New Zealand, which routinely use conferencing to process youth accused of sexual assault. In all other jurisdictions, sexual assault has deliberately been placed off the restorative justice agenda. Sexual violence is widely understood to be "too sensitive" or "too risky" to be handled by conference or to be diverted from court prosecution.

Critiques of conferencing for sexual assault, although less numerous than for domestic and family violence, assume that victims will suffer more from an informal, face-to-face encounter with an offender. In addition, if cases are diverted from court to conference, it will appear that offenders are being treated "too leniently" and offences not taken seriously enough, or what feminists term the "cheap justice" problem (Coker 1999: 85). The archival study permitted us to address these concerns and it focused on these questions:

  1. What distinguishes a court case from a conference case? Are there significant differences in the age of the offender or the victim? the type and "seriousness" of offending? the victim-offender relationship? the YP's prior contact with the justice system? whether or not the YP admits to the offence when interviewed by police?
  2. What happens to a case once it is referred to court? How long does it take to finalise a case from the time an offence is reported to the police? How do the legal charges "erode" over time, either in terms of pleas to lesser charges or the withdrawal of charges altogether? What kinds of penalties are imposed in court? How do these compare with undertakings agreed to in conference?
  3. What do family conferences for sexual offences look like? Who attends the conference? What is the ratio of the offender's supporters to the victim's supporters? What are the typical agreements produced by these conferences? Are the undertakings more likely to be centred on the offender or the victim (for example, counselling for the YP versus reparations to the victim)?
  4. What is the prevalence of officially detected re-offending in the period following the court or conference? Are there differences between court and conference, holding other relevant variables constant?

Innovations in Indigenous justice

Observations of urban Indigenous courts and justice practices in more remote Australian Indigenous communities, coupled with interviews of judicial officers, defence attorneys, police prosecutors, and other key personnel and interviews, are the focus of this segment of the project.

Reports and publications