A Bridge too Far

“[The] bill builds on those laws to ensure serious repeat youth offenders are held accountable for their actions and that there are swift and serious consequences for criminal offending.”

After months of public lobbying, the Queensland Parliament finally passed the highly touted, but equally controversial, Strengthening Community Safety Bill 2023 on 16 March 2023. The Bill, aimed at cracking down on young repeat offenders, will implement a suite of legislative reforms to the youth criminal justice system, including overriding the state’s Human Rights Act to make breach of bail an offence for children, introducing tougher sentencing principles with respect to serious repeat offenders, and expanding the list of offences for which there is a presumption against bail.

Police Minister, Mark Ryan, lauded the new laws, stating that “[The] bill builds on those laws to ensure serious repeat youth offenders are held accountable for their actions and that there are swift and serious consequences for criminal offending.”

However, the laws have not come without controversy, and for months there has been strong opposition and public outcry by human rights advocates and legal experts, supported by the likes of Greens MP for Maiwar, Michael Berkman, who accused the government of driving “a baseless, media-driven response that suspends the Human Rights Act on four occasions to deny children their rights”. During the debate, he also stated, “This is a disgraceful piece of legislation and I hope each and every one of these members of the government feels shame.”

The swift and tough laws proposed in the Bill were reminiscent of those that were introduced in Victoria in 2017, following the notorious and highly publicised case of James Gargasoulas, a man who deliberately drove his car into pedestrians along Bourke Street in the Melbourne central business district, after having been granted bail by a court just days earlier. Six people were killed and twenty-seven were seriously injured, leading to widespread public uproar which prompted a tough crackdown on the state’s bail laws.

The Victorian Bail Act was amended to broaden the range of offending captured by reverse onus provisions, which required an accused person to show ‘compelling reasons’ or ‘exceptional circumstances’ for them to be released on bail. The effect of the amendments meant that people who were accused of even low level repeat offending, such as shoplifting, were captured by the provisions.

In January of this year, Coroner Simon McGregor, handed down damning findings into the death in custody of Veronica Nelson, a 37-year-old indigenous woman who tragically died in custody after her repeated pleas for medical assistance were roundly ignored. The Coroner, who described Ms Nelson’s treatment as “cruel” and “inhumane,” and her death as “preventable,” was brought to tears during a four hour long reading of his findings, in which he took aim at a litany of systemic failures within the criminal justice, health and correctional systems. In the process, His Honour described the Victorian Bail Act as incompatible with the Charter of Human Rights, and called the 2018 amendments to the Bail Act a “complete, unmitigated disaster”.

It is now widely understood the Victorian government plans to reverse those amendments.

Thankfully,  here in Queensland the sensible process of public debate has whittled down some of the more hysterical touted “reforms” to youth crime laws in Queensland. But the question remains. Will what’s left of what was undoubtedly a populist, knee-jerk reaction to often alarmist reporting of juvenile crime in this state, still prove to be a bridge too far?

Jonathan Nyst

Gold Coast and Brisbane Lawyer

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