Locking up kids and other quick ways to get votes in an election year

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The past few weeks have seen significant public discourse around the Queensland State Government’s proposed legislative changes to address what many commentators are calling a current youth crime “epidemic.” The government response has been to propose radical changes to the Charter of Youth Justice Principles and the protections afforded to children in the judicial system, the details of which appear in the recently released “Community Safety Plan for Queensland” report.

To give credit where it is due, the State Government has acknowledged that youth crime is a complex, multi-faceted issue that requires intervention and action that can be achieved only by a multi-disciplinary approach, and the Community Safety Plan proposes a slate programs and benefits intended to prevent youth crime across Queensland before it happens. Some examples aimed at addressing the root causes of crime include:

  • Investing $1.65 billion in programs to support Queenslanders’ mental health;
  • A further $3.1 billion being invested into the ‘Homes for Queenslanders Plan’;
  • A $288 million package to keep students engaged in education; and
  • Pledging $750 million to assist unemployed and under employed Queenslanders to gain skills, qualifications and experience to enter the workforce.

These approaches are founded upon research conducted in 2023 which found that:

  • 53% of young people within the justice system are impacted by domestic and family violence;
  • 48% of them are not enrolled in education, training or employment;
  • 39% have one or more mental health disorders;
  • 30% are in unstable or unsuitable accommodation, and
  • 26% have at least one parent who has been in custody.

Holistically, the hope is that many of the root causes of youth crime may be adequately addressed by the proposed programs and funding. However, whether this approach works or not, the State Government has also pledged $493 million to create another 900 police positions, and further funding to construct specialised youth detention and remand centres.

It is this not-so-subtle emphasis upon detention that has many commentators more than a little concerned. The Community Safety Plan appears predicated upon a view that “strengthening youth justice laws” will have the biggest effect on crime, and that opening children’s courts to the public, and to the media, will deter potential offenders. But youth advocates contend that locking children up in remand centres, so they are temporarily “out-of-sight,” is no more than a political band-aid that fails to address the real issues creating the problem.

It is widely accepted that offenders fall into two categories – adolescent-limited offenders and life-course-persistent offenders – and that children placed into custodial detention are far more likely to be converted into life-course-persistent offenders when not appropriately rehabilitated. There is clearly a hope that many of the promises included within the Community Safety Plan will curb the conversion of adolescent-limited offenders, but the State Government faces a number of hurdles in addressing its community safety agenda. They include a longstanding struggle to recruit members into the Queensland Police Service, ensuring funds are appropriately used and invested, and most importantly, shifting the social consciousness when it comes to custodial detention.

Intervention and rehabilitation only work if the Government and the people implementing these programs are serious about that approach. No doubt many opponents of the new youth justice laws hold significant scepticism about whether true rehabilitation is possible in the context of a detention system that has historically favoured punishment over rehabilitation.

It should also be noted that crime across the Queensland is actually on the decline, which is addressed within the Community Safety Plan, stating the most current statistics of the youth crime rate reflect:

  • A 1% decline across all offences;
  • A 9% decline in unlawful entry offences;
  • A 2% decline in unlawful use of a motor vehicle offences;
  • A 1% decline in property crime offences;
  • A 7% decline in fraud; and
  • A 2% in other types of offences.

This leads many advocates to fear that the actions of the State Government are a hasty and poorly-considered reaction to the current echo-chamber of an inflated fear of crime, and may ultimately amount to no more than a ‘get-tough-on-crime’ play in an election year where youth crime has become a burning issue.

Will the proposed measures work? Only time will tell. Certainly, at least some of the initiatives within the Community Safety Plan signal a good intent and plan to improve the lives of at-risk youths. But one step forward so often is countered by two steps backward. A juvenile court process opened for public view and publication, and ever-expanding remand centres catering for the detention of children on a large scale, may just be a step too far.

Jordan Roles

Brisbane Lawyer

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