Project Pathfinder is a partnership between the NSW Police Force, National Rugby League (NRL) and Youth Justice NSW, and will provide at risk teenagers from regional areas with mentorships and opportunities to reach their potential.

Moree, a small northern NSW town known to have long-term youth crime issues and now experiencing a spike in robberies, break-ins and car theft, will be used as a possible blueprint for change.

NSW 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 spike in violent incidents.

“Initiatives like this one offer hope and an alternative,” he told reporters in Moree today.

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

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 said.

“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.”

A pilot program is also being run in the town, 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.

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

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.

NSW Police Commissioner, Karen Webb said policing in regional communities is not just about reducing crime, it’s also about prevention. 

"Being part of diversionary program like Project Pathfinder allows police to connect with young people and help them reach their potential,” Webb said.

“NSW Police are pleased to partner with organisations like the NRL to engage young people in regional areas and it’s projects like this that can highlight the many opportunities and pathways open to them.”

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

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

Not everyone is convinced the program encompasses enough young people.

Associate Professor of Criminology Xanthé Mallett from the University of Newcastle, for example, is concerned about eligibility for the program, given teens who have already committed crimes are not eligible.

“If we simply look at those at risk and say if you’ve already committed an offence, you’re not worthy of this kind of assistance or these kinds of role models or opportunity, I think that’s just going to further entrench these behaviours that we are seeing,” Mallett said on the ABC News website.

She said more needs to be done to divert and support young people who have already started committing crimes.

But Minns said the Government had struck the right balance.

“We haven’t just introduced a law-and-order response,” he said.

“We’re also looking at the amount of money we spent in pre-crime diversion programmes, particularly for adolescents, particularly for regional communities, particularly for Indigenous communities.”

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

“We can’t jail our way out of this,” he said, adding that agencies needed to work together to maintain programs that kept kids active and engaged.

Three teenagers from Bourke, Lightning Ridge and Moree have recently completed the pilot program and were recognised for their selection and efforts at the program launch today.

They've already met their mentors, set goals with appointed NSW Police Force Youth Engagement Officers and attended last month’s NRL Multicultural Round.

Following the launch today the NRL also hosted a skills clinic for local Moree public schools at Boughton Oval, with the help of NRL and NRLW players Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker, Quincy Dodd and Rhiannon Byers.

(with AAP)