Youth crime crackdown sucks Queensland children into ‘quicksand of the legal system’

State forges ahead with controversial laws targeting young repeat offenders, despite absence of clear outcomes

The case of John (a pseudonym) v The Queen was heard in a Brisbane court last year. The pseudonym was used because, at the time of offending, John was 11.

John is one of hundreds of Queensland children who face its criminal justice system every year. Overwhelmingly, like John, they are Indigenous kids. More will end up behind bars here than in any other state in Australia.

John’s lawyer argued his client’s sentence of 12 months’ probation was disproportionate and did not sufficiently consider his young age. His appeal was rejected.

Just three days later, the Palaszczuk government would introduce a raft of new laws designed to “crack down on youth crime” in response to a number of high-profile tragedies, involving teenagers and stolen cars.

The new laws included the use of GPS tracking bracelets, police metal detecting, or wanding devices, and measures to make bail harder for repeat offenders.

A review into that crackdown by former police commissioner Bob Atkinson, released this week, was unable to determine if the laws had reduced serious, repeat youth offending in their first six months.

His report found children on bail had committed more crimes, particularly serious crimes, and service delivery and advocacy organisations thought the laws hadn’t worked.

Nonetheless, it was trumpeted as a success for holding “serious repeat offenders in detention and for longer”.

John’s offences were described as “not particularly serious”. He took $75 from a wallet and bought a drink with a stolen credit card – the exceptions being that he was a passenger in a stolen vehicle and threw a phone at a staff member in his residential care facility.

But despite his tender age, John already had a seven-page juvenile criminal history.

Child Safety had been involved in his care his entire life, and the court heard of his “traumatic childhood” and exposure to parental domestic violence and alcohol use.

It also heard he had been “showing signs of improvement in his behaviour”, was attending school more often and playing sports.

Speaking to press this week after his report came to light, Atkinson referred to the “brutal reality” in which many of those targeted by the legal crackdown are raised.

The ex police boss spoke of young offenders being victims themselves of physical, psychological and sexual abuses.

“Sadly if you have a child born today with foetal alcohol syndrome, in a dysfunctional family that is exposed to domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse … by the time that child is 10, there’s a pretty good chance that they will be in both the child safety system or before the youth justice system,” he said.

“That’s the brutal reality …. [but] it doesn’t excuse or justify the behaviour.”

The controversial Queensland laws target about 400 serious, repeat offenders, most of whom are Indigenous children.

Despite the report’s inconclusive findings, Atkinson backed the laws because they had community support.

“With no disrespect to academic research, none whatsoever, I think the jury was well and truly still out on this,” he told reporters.

“And I think if the public is supportive, and the police have been responsible, then I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do.”

Though Atkinson backs the state’s new laws against youth offending, he is among those publicly calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to protect children like John from the criminal justice system.

In a 2018 report he recommended the government raise the age to 12 – subject to an impact study and national consensus among states and territories.

Earlier this year, a parliamentary committee rejected calls to raise the age to 14, with the premier’s office saying it was taking part in a “national process”.

As Queensland waits for consensus, Jamie McConnachie, executive officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, said children like John were “falling into the quicksand of the legal system”.

The Waanyi woman was born and raised in Mount Isa but has spent much of her career as a criminal solicitor in Victoria, where children as young as 10 also face court and detention.

McConnachie said the experience could cause “lifelong damage to their physical and mental development”.

“As a solicitor I’ve visited numerous children as young as 10 in the police watch house and court docks,” she said.

“Those children, they don’t recover from that experience.”

“They have post-traumatic stress from that, or the other issue is they get comfortable with that because they are being exposed to it constantly by being taken in.”

“That’s what institutionalisation is.”

  • With Australian Associated Press


Joe Hinchliffe

The GuardianTramp

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