“I’ve been very stressed. I’m very relieved that it’s all over. I know it was my fault.”
Domac Gile-Lul was told he will not be going to jail and his debt of more than $7,300 in infringement notices has been wiped. It was his fifth driving offence, this time driving without a licence.
“You’ve deserved this, you’ve worked very hard,” said magistrate Pauline Spencer. “All right, now don’t come back.”
Gile-Lul is one of 51 people who have benefited from the award-winning alcohol diversion program based in the south-eastern Melbourne suburb of Dandenong.
He has been deaf since his birth in Sudan in 1988, one of 10 children. Through two interpreters, he tells me his mother was sick when she was pregnant with him. “It was the war and disease in Africa that caused me to become deaf in both ears.”
Gile-Lul was 14 when he arrived in Australia. He was illiterate and was bullied at school because of his deafness. “The kids would play tricks on me. It was very confusing. I didn’t know who to trust.”
It’s an unusual experience communicating with Gile-Lul. An interpreter, David, translates my question into sign language to Daniel, who is deaf. Daniel then translates David’s sign into a universal, cross-cultural version to ensure Gile-Lul understands.
Gile-Lul says he turned to alcohol in his teenage years to cope with his traumatic childhood. At the worst point, he says he was drinking four litres of wine a day.
Senior Constable Carol Williams first encountered him in 2007 when she picked him up for driving over the limit.
“He was good to me from the start. He was never a kid that became abusive or argumentative. I asked him to do something and he would do it the best he could straight away, which is rare,” she says.
Williams has worked with young offenders in Dandenong for more than 10 years. When the Dandenong program was launched in 2015 to rehabilitate alcohol-dependent youths and reduce recidivist offending, she made sure to nominate Gile-Lul.
“The carrot is they can get their fines wiped. They’re still allowed to drink but they have to see a counsellor. Once they start seeing a counsellor, we see a dramatic change in their behaviour.”
A year after joining the program, Gile-Lul no longer has a problem with alcohol. He has moved out of his family home. He regularly sees a counsellor and has connected with the local deaf community. He has plans to study cabinetmaking at Tafe.
The program has so far reduced repeat offending in the area by 30%.
The chairman of the South Sudanese Community Association in Victoria, Kot Monoah says: “This is a methodology that is welcome. It is good, innovative thinking and we need more of these sorts of programs.”
But it is not a “one-stop-shop for all”, Monoah adds.
“There will be some who will succeed, but there will also be some who will relapse,” he says. “There needs to be more alternative programs that pass on the message that alcohol-related violence is not acceptable.”
Research by the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency stresses the importance of diversion programs for young offenders. It found a significantly lower rate of reoffending among those who had been offered a caution (26.8%) compared with those who were charged (57.65%).
Michael Stanton, a senior vice-president for Liberty Victoria, with more than a decade’s experience as a criminal barrister, stresses the benefits of keeping young people out of jail.
“As soon as you put a young person into a prison environment, particularly with adult prisoners, who are hardened criminals, it’s not going to help,” he says. “On top of that, if someone’s in there with a raging methamphetamine addiction, if they’ve got health issues, psych issues, putting them in that environment isn’t going to make them any better. In fact, it’s going to make them worse.”
“The people who go on the program are being picked up all the time for drinking,” says Williams. “They’re coming into the cells and that’ll take a minimum of four hours to be lodged. By the time you take into account all the staff and other costs, that’s $700 each time.”
Victoria’s prison population has more than doubled since 2000 and the state Labor government has allocated more than $1bn to expand the prison system in the next budget.
“We can’t build prisons fast enough to lock people up at the moment,” Stanton says. “We’re already at capacity.
“This idea that if we lock more people up we’re going to be safer is an absolute joke. It doesn’t work. Look at the US – the prisons have filled up, the cost is massive, the crime rate goes up.”
Williams says the Dandenong program is improving the often hostile relations between police and the public.
Officers rely on volunteer youth workers. With more money, Williams says, they could employ a counsellor for one day a week for the program. “We could help so many more people. It’s proven to work,” she says.
Gile-Lul has nothing but praise for Williams. “The only person I will listen to is Caz,” he says. “I know that she will help and support me. I don’t trust anyone else. She has been able to explain so many things to me and I’ve learnt so much. She’s been amazing.”