Sam shared with us the reasons that made him choose to study Criminology, his professional journey, his hopes and future challenges in the Criminal Justice space.

Why did you want to study Criminology at UNSW?

I started at UNSW studying Education when I came across Criminology as an elective. It intrigued me as I came from a family and community that was entrenched in youth crime and social disadvantage. I saw criminology as an opportunity to understand this from a different perspective and perhaps add some value from a lived experience.

Tell us about your professional journey since graduating from UNSW

I did my degree part-time. I started my professional journey as a 19-year-old kid working at the Police and Community Youth Club in Glebe – where I grew up. It was a great first role as it exposed me to police and young people getting caught up in crime. I also learned about different strategies and programs to try and reduce it.

I then moved into the adult sector where I worked with Red Cross managing their state-wide pilot program for post release mentoring. It was a great experience that really threw me in the deep end. I suddenly found myself alone in a prison yard trying to engage and provide advice and guidance for people getting ready to be released back into the community.

Alongside this, I worked for over four years whilst completing my studies for juvenile justice as a youth officer, providing supervision for young people in custody. It was a good practical experience and insight into the direct policy implications of young people particularly those experiencing complex disadvantage, trauma and issues around mental health.

I later moved into a management role for a community not-for-profit, providing casework, counselling and project support for young people experiencing co-existing issues of alcohol and drug addiction and poor mental health. It was an amazing program and service, of which I am still connected to and have served on their board.

After many years within the not-for-profit space, I decided to change sectors and transitioned into NSW Government working with Aboriginal Affairs. I led the NSW Government response into the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Family Response to the Bowraville Murders. This case is notorious for its failure for the families and systemic discrimination throughout the history of the investigation and trial.

I led a state-wide social policy project that coordinated a whole of government response to building resilience in the Bowraville community. It involved working alongside family members of the victims of the Bowraville murders and providing advice, guidance and support as they navigated the NSW court of criminal appeal process. Their case became the first in the country to challenge the double jeopardy laws on the grounds of fresh and compelling evidence.

Since then, I have moved into social policy, largely informed by my experience working in the criminal justice sector. I have had the privilege to work on the establishment of the Aboriginal Languages Trust as well as other high-profile projects.

What impact do you feel you have been able to make as a result of studying Criminology at UNSW?

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to see the direct impact of my work on people, their families and the community at a local level – particularly when working with young people that are at risk or caught up in the criminal justice system.

I am at a stage in my career now, where I am working within the social policy space – an area that can have a significant impact on the lives and communities I am most passionate about. My hopes are to one day work within a senior leadership role that drives social policy where I can use my education, professional expertise and lived experience to add value and to support change.

Can you explain the importance of teaching Criminology today and what you see as some of the future challenges in the Criminal Justice space?

I see some of the key challenges for criminology or the criminal justice system more broadly as the debunking of stereotypes firstly, that the large proportion of people in prison are there for non-violent offences. We have this fearful narrative that prisons are full of murderers and very evil people. What I have learnt is the gross over-representation of people in prison are living in addiction, diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health and complex trauma. These things are only further exacerbated by our criminal justice system, and I would love to see less investment in building prisons and more investment into building rehabilitation and healing centres.

There is much literature that reinforces the limitations of current criminal justice policy, reinforced by much devastating statistics such as the over-representation of Aboriginal people, particularly in our juvenile centres in NSW where it is close to half!

A future challenge for the criminal justice space is the courage to invest in long term evidence-based approaches such as justice reinvestment, that looks at nuanced place-based approaches to reducing risk of crime, but need the long term commitment of Government to champion these approaches.

Do you have any advice for students currently studying Criminology?

I always tell all my first-year students when I was teaching, how important it is to get work or volunteer early into your degree, to start building your area of passion, interest and your professional brand. So that when you graduate, you have something that stands you apart from other X amount of people that have that same degree.

Kate Panchal