Community Justice Centres: The Road less travelled

24 February 2015 | Posted In: #124 Autumn 2015, Community Facilities, Community Safety, Judicial System, Planning and Built Environment Issues, | Author: Ann Strunks

Australia’s only community justice centre is the Neighbourhood Justice Centre in inner-city Melbourne. Its integrated approach to justice, service co-ordination and crime prevention is one many would like to see tried in NSW. To encourage this discussion Ann Strunks tells us about a project the centre undertook in Smith Street Collingwood.

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) opened in 2007 and is Australia’s only community justice centre.

It is located in the suburb Collingwood and serves the justice needs of residents of the City of Yarra through a range of co-located and co-ordinated justice and social services.

Underpinned by principles and practices of therapeutic jurisprudence and restorative justice, we provide new and innovative ways for dealing with crime, social disorder and social conflict.

The Centre’s busy Magistrate’s Court has jurisdiction to hear:

  • all matters that the Criminal Division hears (except for sex offences)
  • matters involving Family Violence and Personal Safety Intervention Orders
  • Children’s Court matters
  • Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal matters
  • Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal residential tenancy matters, guardianship matters and a range of other civil disputes.

In keeping with the principles of community justice, our Court has one magistrate who hears all matters.

In this way, our Magistrate has a deeper understanding of the wider social conditions that affect criminal behaviour and rehabilitation.

Our Client Services Team provides assessment, treatment and referral services to persons referred through the Centre’s justice processes, and Yarra residents who self-refer.

In addition, a range of justice and social service agencies work collaboratively to provide integrated, co-ordinated services.

Services include mediation, legal advice, employment and housing support, financial support, drug and alcohol counselling, family violence and victim support, and mental health services.

Our Crime Prevention Team and Community Engagement Team build partnerships and networks with and across justice-related agencies, social service providers, local businesses and business associations and importantly, the people of Yarra.

We are working with the community to reduce criminal and other harmful behaviour, improve the wellbeing of our community, tackle the underlying causes of criminal behaviour and disadvantage, and build the capacity of the community to solve its own problems.

Five kilometres north of the heart of Melbourne, at 19.5 square kilometres the City of Yarra is one of Australia’s smaller inner city municipalities.

Yarra is home to 83,593 people and 33,500 households. Around 66,792 work here.

Approximately 29 per cent of the Yarra’s community was born overseas and there are around 67 languages spoken in the area.

The NJC was established to service the City of Yarra a part of the State Government’s A Fairer Victoria policy.

Smith Street Dreaming


Smith Street Dreaming is an Indigenous music festival that celebrates the lives of the people who live and work on one Melbourne’s most iconic streets. It’s also a one-of-a-kind.

In 2012, local Elders and members of the Indigenous community started a conversation with local police, business owners, service providers and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC). Through raw, honest and long-overdue conversations we realised we all wanted the same things: social inclusion, cultural respect and diversity, safety, and community.

From talk came music. Smith Street Dreaming honours the rich diversity, culture and spirit of Collingwood, and we reminded each other that we build strong communities by sharing stewardship of all these things. The NJC is very proud to have been at the vanguard of the formation of the Smith Street Working Group that runs this annual event.

Our festival is a milestone for how the Working Group is resolving long-standing tensions, tackling the underlying causes of crime, and building safer communities. For the NJC, the Working Group is the milestone for how the community justice achieves these goals by taking the right approach, instead of the ordinary one.

This is why this is not an overview of how we are reducing offending rates and building inter-cultural harmony through conflict resolution and alternative dispute methodologies. It is the story of how Justice is doing these things by stepping out of its comfort zone and walking in someone else’s shoes.

Winds of change

History is the best vantage point from which to appreciate what the Smith Street Working Group has achieved.

Collingwood lies at the heart of the City of Yarra, one of Melbourne’s oldest inner city suburbs. Like our Sydney cousins, Collingwood is a paradoxical mix of rapid transformation and stagnation. High income earners are driving (ware)house prices through the roof even as some of our city’s most vulnerable and disenfranchised live in the towering estates and downtrodden back streets that few outside the area realise exist.

The rakish heart of Collingwood is Smith Street.

Stylish eateries, bars and shops are rapidly papering over its shabby past, and at once bohemian, chic, edgy, tatty and hip, it’s a street upon which the rich rub shoulders with the poor, and beside excess, addiction, poverty and social exclusion struggle in plain sight.

While those suffering the usually cargo of addictions and desperation come in all shades, none are as vulnerable as our local Aboriginal community.

Before we dreamed

Around 320 Aboriginal people live in Yarra, most within a stone’s throw of Smith Street.

Collingwood sits on the land of the Wurunderjeri people and Koories are proud of their historical ties and deep social connections to the place, and to this day, Smith Street is an important meeting place for Aboriginal people living or visiting the area.

As Archie Roach observed: “If people just saw it from the outside…they’d think: “Oh…Koorie people drinking in a pack”. But it’s more than that. [Smith Street] is where I learned my history…because all the old fellas, they knew more about me than I did.’

Despite Archie Roache’s insights, when the Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) opened its doors in 2007, there were significant tensions between local Koories, business operators and the police. Views differed as to the causes. Traders had reason to complain that members of the Aboriginal community were acting egregiously, and fearing for the safety of themselves and their customers, they blamed Koories for driving away trade. Police said they wasted time and resources dealing with disorderly and criminal behaviour, much of which stemmed from the local Aboriginal community. Our Aboriginal neighbours justifiably argued they had every right to gather in a public place, and pointed to a history of dispossession, disconnections from family and community, structural exclusion, racism, substance abuse, endemic poverty, and other easily identifiable disasters.

As usual, the truth is more complex, elusive, and mercurial.

The City of Yarra and Collingwood in particular, has one of the highest crime rates in Victoria. Illicit drug use is a significant issue for Yarra, and drug users come from further afield to buy and sell and attend the variety of social services, including the major public hospitals operating in the area. Collingwood deals with higher rates of drug and alcohol related crime than other local government areas, except for our neighbour, the City of Melbourne.

Painfully, members of our local Aboriginal community, in particular the self-named ‘Parkies’, who meet on Smith Street and surrounding streets, are victims of the Stolen Generation, and most suffer from the intergenerational traumas induced by intergenerational racism and flawed ‘solutions’. Little wonder Australia’s shame is still visible on streets across the nation.

Despite the fact that drug and alcohol abuse cuts across race lines, the local Aboriginal people, and pointedly, the Parkies, are targeted as the primary cause of anti-social behaviour in Collingwood. The Aboriginal community might well rephrase this to say they have been the primary scapegoats.

Equally, while disingenuous to say the long-established businesses have tolerated anti-social behaviour, it’s fair to say new business operators demand ‘something is done’ without understanding the history or historical significance of Collingwood.

Something needs to give

As this potted history explains, over the years authorities have sought ways to combat the anti-social behaviour and tensions that have made Smith Street notorious.

In 2004, local and state governments, social services and Yarra Council formed the Street People’s Committee, and planned a range of services to curb excessive drinking and attendant problems.

The committee sought a mobile assistance patrol to get intoxicated persons off the street and into appropriate care – for example, home or hospital. A sobering up clinic would support the patrol, and an Aboriginal cultural centre run by and for Aboriginal people, would complete the triangle. For a host of reasons, these initiatives were not funded.

Two years after the NCJ opened its doors, Yarra Council banned alcohol consumption in public areas in the City of Yarra. Council says it introduced Local Law 8 to reduce alcohol-related violence and self-harm, but the NJC understands it was primarily legislated to address traders’ complaints leveled at the Koories of Smith Street.

In 2010, a year after its introduction, alcohol and drug centre Turning Point evaluated Local Law 8 and found it was highly detrimental to the Indigenous community.

As the law took effect, the Koorie community dispersed. Long-standing social networks and friendship groups fragmented, the ‘bush telegraph’ that transmitted news, information and stories was disconnected, and people missed vital support services because health and welfare workers found it harder to locate their clients. [1]

Some in the Aboriginal community relocated to Richmond, a neighboring suburb and a world apart. Richmond grapples with harder drugs, and as one observer told the NJC, what authorities could see happening on Smith Street, hid from view in Richmond’s laneways.

Colin Hunter, Senior Koorie Elder, Yarra Council community planner and key member of the Smith Street Working Group says the law did, in part, reduce drinking. However, he says the law also compelled people to drink at home, which led to overcrowding and violence, put other tenants at risk, jeopardised housing tenure, and strained the resources of the housing services. [2]

In 2011, Capire Consulting Working Group evaluated the law and found police applied Local Law 8 in a “targeted and discretionary fashion.”

As one social service worker told the NJC, the law had one positive outcome: it increased Koorie involvement in Council process as they railed against the racist aspects of the law.

Today Local Law 8 rarely is enforced. The local Aboriginal community meets on Smith Street, and students, after-work crowds, and weekend partygoers continue their revelries.

On a positive note, in this period, Victoria Police and the Department of Justice created a range of Aboriginal outreach and liaison roles (staffed by Aboriginal Australians), and significantly, the Department of Justice signed the Aboriginal Justice Agreement.

Yarra Council initiated its first Aboriginal Partnership Plan 2004-2008, developed an Aboriginal History Walk and other cultural events, and Indigenous council staff made much needed headway.

For all this, up until 2012 the fact remained: police were responding to upwards of ten incidents a day in response to traders’ request for assistance. There were ongoing reports from traders about threatening behaviour by some Parkies, and for some traders the crisis was at breaking point. Additionally, the Smith Street Traders Association said that trade was slow and attributed the malaise, in part, to the behaviour of the Parkies.

On the other side of the street the Koories, particularly the Parkies, felt besieged, and worse, believed they were being forcibly removed and displaced from their rightful meeting places.

Gentrification comes at a cost for everyone.

So, why has the NJC’s Smith Street Working Group achieved so much, so quickly?

When we talk, we listen

The genesis of Smith Street Working Group is an interesting one, as it is part strategic, part organic.

In 2012, NJC Crime Prevention project manager, Hieng Lim, witnessed the arrest of three local Aboriginal people. At the time, he was in a nearby shop talking to shop trader Dianne Harris. Dianne was to become one of the leading champions of the Smith Street Working Group, a huge force behind the festival and a remarkable example of openness and reconciliation. For now, she was at wits end about the anti-social behaviour and shop thefts perpetrated by local Koories on a regularly basis.

Lim reported the arrest and the trader’s complaints to NJC management and the local police inspector. Lim said the law responded to a minor infraction with unwarranted heavy-handedness; the response being indicative of entrenched misconceptions and a complex amalgam of animosities. Of the behaviour that lead to the arrest Lim said, while not excusable, it was understandable when viewed through the long lens of cultural alienation.

And though we agree the traders’ grievances with local Koories are often justified, we know the tensions are indicative of wider and deeper social issues playing out every day across the nation.

Lim’s report landed on desks at the NJC and Victoria police, and with it a new approach to building community harmony. NJC Director, Kerry Walker explains, “We were working with the police on a range of initiatives to address offending, but this was the first time we broached the topics of police culture and responsibility, in conjunction with the traders’ grievances and Parkies civic responsibilities and behaviour.”

Uniting a street

Community justice works best when it works flexibly, which is why the path that led to a music festival is a winding one.

We foresaw our ability to open dialogue between traders, police and the Aboriginal community, even if we had no plans to formalise relations under the banner of a committee or working group.

“Our initial aim was to find ways to share the stewardship of Collingwood,” says Kerry Walker. “We wanted to help Smith Street transition through gentrification without displacing people who’ve every right to be here, protect our heritage and ensure economic activity continued to thrive.”

Our first targets were the ‘low hanging fruit’ — police, social services and local council. However, instead of bringing the authorities to the table en masse, we built relations with individual key players.

As Lim explains, “We crafted relationships with each of our stakeholders in parallel before bringing them together because building trust is complex and takes time.”

Over many months we worked with police, community service providers, city council, the traders and Aboriginal Elders. Our softly, softly approach gave each person the breathing space to voice understandable cynicism and suspicion, air grievances, ask candid questions and question the NJC’s legitimacy and capabilities.

“In some instances we worked with stakeholders such as the police, on projects they were running. On the opposite end of the scale we met Elders and local Parkies on street corners and park benches,” Lim says. “Over the months we realized we were doing more than brokering dialogue; we were forging alliances that were naturally falling into an organizational framework”.

The metamorphosis of hundreds of individual conversations was the Smith Street Working Group.

Share the problems, share the solutions

Aboriginal Elders, police, traders, social service providers, Council and the NJC convened the first Smith Street Working Group in late 2012.

It took a few more months of ‘footpath meetings’ before Parkies came to the table, but the fact that the most vulnerable people now share stewardship of our neighbourhood is a testament to the tenacity of community justice.

The Working Group adopted a mix of informal and formal processes. For the Aboriginal community, the informal is formal, so to this day meetings are “getting together for a yarn”. NJC workers still largely manage formal process such keeping minutes and documenting proceedings.

In keeping with the community justice model, the Working Group’s activities pursued both community development and crime prevention foci. Importantly, it began by reaching the understanding that citizens can have differing values and still build cohesive communities. Promptly, it agreed to build a positive image of Smith Street and forge good relations between those who live, work and use the precinct by:

  • § creating harmony specifically between traders, police and the local Koories
  • § generating peaceful co-existence between everyone who visits, lives or works on it
  • § making Smith Street safe and harmonious for everyone who visits, lives or works on it.

Trust is a remarkable teacher. The group quickly decided to: establish a Cultural Awareness leaflet to assist police communicate with Aboriginal people and understand their culture; for Elders, NJC’s Koorie Justice Workers and members of the Working Group to explain Aboriginal culture and communication at police induction days; and produce an identity kit to assist police identify Aboriginal outreach workers when out on foot patrol. These ideas are in progress. A music festival took precedence.

That the newly formed collective of Elders, Parkies, traders, police and justice-related agencies willingly met once a month (and daily towards curtain call) to deliver a successful Indigenous music festival took everyone by surprise.

Issues and Challenges

It hasn’t been an easy road. There have been many challenges establishing and maintaining the Working Group.

The first meeting was very confrontational and in the early days the “poor relationship” between the key stakeholders (the police, the Aboriginal community and the shop traders) was a major hurdle.

“The police saw their role limited to responding to law and order and enforcement issues. Traders believed in their right to make a living and felt this right was violated. And the Aboriginal community believed they were being labelled and racially vilified,” says Kerry Walker. “But you must remember that long-running conflict had bred distrust and an ‘us versus them’ mentality. And everyone had witnessed a succession of strategies trialled by various tiers of government that had either limited success, or were perceived as inappropriately imposed short-term solutions that failed to take into account the needs of everyone in the community.”

What did we do right?

Smith Street Dreaming 2013 happened because a complex web of coincidences and relationships converged, and the zeitgeist was right.

The festival was the manifestation of respect for the local Aboriginal people, giving them the opportunity to celebrate their identity and connection to place. It also gave the justice system —specifically the NJC — a place to have low-risk conversations with a wide range of groups to generate respect and a shared sense of civic pride and stewardship. (About 500 people came to the first festival. The Working Group decided to use minimal promotion as we wanted a good crowd, not an overwhelming one).

We’re still dreaming

In 2014, more than 1,200 people from all walks of life enjoyed musicians Joe Geia, Deline Briscoe, Crystal Mercy, Bart Willoughby and Nikki Ashby. Uncle Jack Charles was Master of Ceremonies.

Since the establishment of the Smith Street Working Group, police call outs to Smith Street have fallen from around 10 per day to between 6 and ten a month. Crime in the Smith Street has also dropped by about 33% over the last two years. These statistics are testament to what happens when the justice system sees the world through other’s eyes and listens to someone else’s stories.

The 2014 Smith Street Dreaming won the City of Yarra’s Community Event of The Year. We’ll keep you posted about this year’s festival because it promises to be a dream come true.

Participant Comments

Council’ Perspective

“The Smith Street Dreaming was a unique and moving experience. As a councillor whose ward takes in Smith Street, and a member of Yarra’s Aboriginal Advisory Working Group, I have been keen to see a way to integrate all the social and cultural elements which make up Smith Street’s identity. Smith Street Dreaming did just that.

The team behind the festival demonstrated the enormous power of community collaboration, goodwill and mutual respect, and delivered a festival that inspired and elevated all those who participated. It exposed the soul of Smith Street, which was something very special.”

Councillor Amanda Stone, City of Yarra.

Police Perspective.

Peter Beckers is Senior Sergeant at Collingwood Police Station. He came to Collingwood in May 2011 and got to know the locals and the issues. He met Hieng Lim and Di Harris at a public meeting and joined with them to start the Smith Street Working Group. He says the broad representation on the Working Group with people from diverse services and diverse cultural backgrounds means it’s a rich tapestry.

“It works. It captures everyone and creates ripples in the pond. The Working Group has a holistic approach. We get together and really talk – honesty, plain English, no one steps on each other’s toes. It builds partnerships, cohesion and pride in our work.”

“Everyone in the Working Group has taught me a lot. One of the Aboriginal Working Group members keeps telling me “You don’t have to walk on eggshells Peter.” And that’s what it’s like – open communication.”

He thought the Smith Street dreaming festival was “fantastic, really enjoyable. Two years ago I would never have stood there in plain clothes talking to an Aboriginal.”

When asked why most of his officers were there in plain clothes he said: “I didn’t want my members to go there as security. I wanted the barriers broken down so we were seen as human beings, mingling at the same level, not a standoffish approach, but here we are, exactly the same as you. Most locals know who we are, so it was good for them to see us there mixing with them.”

“The impact of the festival has been amazing. Things have quietened down around Stanley and Moore Streets. It’s had a ripple effect. There’s real community engagement now. Police are seen as more human and my officers get out there and talk now to the Aboriginals instead of just directing them.

They make conversation with them. There’s an attitude now from everyone of, let’s embrace the Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge and expertise and let’s reap the rewards.

My officers are out there talking to everyone on the street, engaging the whole community on a regular basis.”


Parkie’s Perspective

Tracey was a Volunteer/Marshall at the Smith Street Dreaming Festival. She was invited to take on this role by workers who attend the Billabong BBQ. The role involved making people feel welcome and safe on the day. She lives in the Collingwood housing commission flats and identifies herself as a Parkie. When asked what she thought of the festival, Tracy stated:

“The festival was great, fantastic. We need more of them. It was great to get the community together, the Koorie mob with the rest. People came in from all over. It has helped relationships on Smith Street. The shop people wave to us now, instead of ignoring us. The festival showed our people in a good way, we’re not just hopeless people with problems.”

Ann Strunks is the Community Engagement & Communications Coordinator, Innovations Exchange, Neighbourhood Justice Centre Collingwood –

[1]Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre, Evaluating the Impacts of Local Law 8 in the City of Yarra, Sept 2010

[2] North Central Metro PCP, HACC & Homelessness in Yarra Newsletter, Issue 5, June 2010