Sarah Hopkins is an experienced criminal lawyer and award-winning novelist. Her debut novel The Crimes of Billy Fish was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2007 and her latest work The Subjects explores the current approach to teenage criminal offenders in a dystopian setting. She is the Managing Solicitor of Justice Projects at the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT and Chair of Just Reinvest NSW. She tells how her legal and writing careers work hand-in-glove.
Woven through the alternative universe of Sarah Hopkins’ latest novel is a brutal reality: for many children swept up in our state’s juvenile justice system, often there are no happy endings.
But the career of the criminal defence lawyer, social justice expert and author has another recurring theme: hope. Hope that through strong intention and smart investment, we can rewrite the future of the children most at risk of falling through the cracks.
While her observations about the criminal justice system have shaped the themes of her latest dystopian work The Subjects, Hopkins emphasises her characters are pure works of fiction.
“My main intention is to write a good story with compelling characters, I don’t start with a political message to get across,” Hopkins tells LSJ.
“You start with a good story and good characters. But when it comes to a broader social message, fiction can be a good vehicle for that. You can agitate these issues in a way that draws people in.
“There is an overlapping layer of legal themes in my novels. The latest book was written as I was working on justice reinvestment and I really had honed in on how we are getting things wrong.”
In addition to writing and law, 51-year-old Hopkins has two teenage children with her husband, prominent Sydney chef and restaurant owner Matt Moran and is chair of Just Reinvest NSW.
Now in its seventh year, the program has been acclaimed for achieving results in reducing crime, recidivism and disadvantage that years of ad hoc government investment has not.
The idea behind Just Reinvest is, rather than pouring funding into prisons and punishment measures, money is invested into the community in areas like education and public space, with a data-driven approach shaped to the specific needs of the area.
Already it has seen significant crime reduction in Bourke, a remote community with a large percentage of young residents that traditionally has been entrenched in disadvantage.
“The courtroom is a point in time that reflects on all the mistakes leading up to it. Lawyers make submissions, the court makes a determination, and then the system starts again,” Hopkins wrote last year of the “pipeline to prison” approach to juvenile justice.
“These aren’t likely to be kids who have parents who can drop everything to be at home with them. When a support system should go into overdrive, instead it shuts down. It is no surprise who this hits the hardest: kids with cognitive impairments, kids in child protection, and Aboriginal kids. And no surprise that the result is so often a lever into the criminal justice system.”
“The answer is often custody for these kids, and that is the wrong answer.”
In The Subjects, 16-year-old Daniel G gets caught drug dealing and, instead of going to prison, he is sentenced to an other-worldly juvenile facility.
He has no idea where he is when he arrives and, together with the other students present, he quickly realises they are part of an experiment. Daniel is not sure what will happen.
The Subjects was described in one review as “a masterclass in narrative”, a skill Hopkins links to the crafting of a narrative in preparing to tell a client’s story for court.
Daniel’s is a tragic story all too familiar for those with exposure to juvenile justice. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at age 10, he grew up in public housing with a mother that struggled with addiction and had a violent partner.
While Daniel is entirely Hopkins’ creation, his story could be echoed in many files before the children’s court or social services.
While systemic failures regarding the state’s most vulnerable do not surprise Hopkins, who started working as a criminal solicitor shortly after graduating law school and has spent more than 20 years with the Aboriginal Legal Service, she feels the punitive approach to young people most in need of care and routine would startle many.
In The Subjects, Daniel has a dystopian perspective, and the literary technique explores how bad things could get in how we are dealing with young people and why – for all our intentions – we can’t make things right.
“Children and young people caught in the criminal justice system see firsthand how the system fails them. Sometimes, even people working in the system would struggle to understand some of these failures,” Hopkins tells LSJ.
“I think many would find it surprising and even shocking how little is done to support kids when they need the most support.”
When LSJ speaks with Hopkins, she reveals plans are afoot to expand Just Reinvest, her legal work remains ongoing, and she intends to write more books.
“There is an ebb and flow as to how consuming it is,” Hopkins says.
“I am passionate about both writing and law; it does require some flexibility, but they are both important to me. So I want to keep a balance of doing both going forward.”