NRL mentors to divert at-risk bush teens from crime

Sporting mentors for at-risk young people could help break the cycle of crime sweeping Australia's regional centres.

The "outside the box" initiative involves the NRL partnering with NSW Police to recruit young people in towns across the state.

Moree, a small northern NSW town experiencing a spike in robberies, break-ins and car theft, will be used as a possible blueprint for change.

Premier Chris Minns has met with town leaders to jump-start the program while continuing his pitch over controversial youth bail laws and a suite of regional crime measures to curb a sharp rise in violent incidents.

"Initiatives like this one offer hope and an alternative," he told reporters in Moree on Wednesday.

"You can't be what you can't see and if young people in Moree see an NRL player in the peak of his or her game they can imagine what's possible for them."

Michael Porter, 15, participated in a pilot of the Pathfinder program and said it gave him an opportunity to meet new people and gain job skills.

"There's not much to do for young people (in Moree)," he said.

His frank statement was echoed by Lightning Ridge teen Mattie-Lee Seaton, who wanted to be a role model for others in her outback mining town.

"I hope to find a career in it, just for the new generation to see there's more than just the Ridge," the 16-year-old said.

The pair's success in the program was acknowledged at Wednesday's launch by NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb.

NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb playing touch rugby in Moree
NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb praised youth in the Pathfinder program at an event in Moree.

Moree Mayor Mark Johnson is optimistic pairing young people with an NRL mentor and unique access to the sport will deter kids from a life of crime.

"We put our hand up and said we were happy to be a test case," he told AAP.

"We have 54 agencies across town from health and education to youth crime and drug and rehab but we're getting the same result.

"We're not seeing any reduction in the level of youth crime."

Another pilot program is being run in Moree, where $13.4 million will be spent on provisions such as extra judicial resources, the Aboriginal Legal Service and a bail accommodation and support service for young people.

Controversial changes to bail laws were passed in March, making it harder for older youths to be released if they were charged for some serious offences while similar charges were pending.

So-called "post and boast" provisions were also introduced, adding an extra two-year maximum penalty for anyone who stole a vehicle or committed a break-in and shared material to advertise their crimes.

Main street of Lightning Ridge
Youth from regional NSW say there is not much to do and the next generation needs role models.

Critics have slammed the bail measure as likely leading to more children being kept behind bars, particularly Indigenous youths.

The Aboriginal Legal Service said more than half of the 4393 children sent to prison in 2023 were Indigenous. 

"If jailing kids worked, we would have seen it by now," the organisation said in a statement on Tuesday.

Initiatives should be about helping to break the cycle of crime, Aboriginal community-led and Moree-based organisation Just Reinvest said.

"Incarceration (is) like a revolving door with the same dangerous behaviours passing on to the next generation," manager Thomas Duncan said.

But Mr Minns said the government had struck the right balance.

Cr Johnson said he knew there was no silver-bullet solution to local crime.

"We can't jail our way out of this," he said, calling on agencies to work together to maintain programs that keep kids active and engaged.

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