Australians urged to ditch ‘tough on crime’ mindset for youth justice as it does not work

As Queensland cracks down on young offenders, experts fear ill-informed public sentiment is influencing policy

The head of the Queensland Family and Child Commission says he is “deeply concerned” at public sentiment calling for more punitive responses to youth crime in the face of clear evidence that “tough” approaches don’t work.

Luke Twyford, the QFCC’s principal commissioner, told Guardian Australia that the government and community needed to be “smart against crime, not tough on crime”.

“I am deeply concerned there’s a contradiction between what is evidence-based good practice in youth justice and what the public expects youth justice to do,” Twyford said.

Last month the Queensland government announced “even tougher” responses to youth offending, including longer sentences and the construction of two new youth detention centres, in response to the stabbing death of Brisbane woman Emma Lovell. The situation has been labelled a “crisis” by some media and the Liberal National opposition.

Another stabbing death, in the Brisbane suburb of Wilston on Sunday, has further heightened an already fraught debate.

The government has made clear its approach to youth justice involves “listening to the community” and responding to public sentiment. But multiple experts, including leading criminologists and advocates, say a punitive approach is likely making crime problems worse.

Prof Ross Homel, a criminologist at Griffith University, says the detention of young people “makes the community less safe”.

“Detention centres are the worst possible places for fixing our broken kids,” Homel said.

“The current incarceration rate of children in Queensland is about double New South Wales on a per-capita basis. It’s not as if we don’t already resort to detention as a deterrent.”

Homel said increased penalties would not deter young offenders.

“I’ve never met any youth offender who would even know what the maximum penalty was, or if it’s about to go up. If they did, it would not be likely to affect their decision making at 2am.”

Many of the Queensland government’s strategies in recent years have been aimed at recidivist offenders. A 2019 Griffith university study, commissioned by the Queensland police service, found that the number of young offenders has declined steadily in recent years; but there had also been “a concurrent growth in the size of the chronic offending population”.

On Tuesday, the Courier-Mail reported on Productivity Commission data that found for children given detention, probation, bail or parole, 56.8% reoffended within a year.

This was portrayed on the front page as a “revolving door”, but experts say such statistics actually highlight the failure of “tough” punitive approaches. Studies have consistently shown that young people placed in detention are more likely to reoffend.

A 2009 study on peer influence concluded that “considerable evidence suggests that the detention of juvenile offenders in programs characterised by high exposure to deviant peers and minimal adult interaction fails to reduce, and in some cases may exacerbate, rates of recidivism”.

The 2019 Griffith University study said that “criminal justice system responses that do not address the drivers or contexts for the offending behaviour are unlikely to encourage desistance or more prosocial behaviours among this offending group, and may inadvertently contribute to their repeated recidivism though entrenching offender identities and social networks”.

Twyford said people in the youth justice system were disproportionately from lower socioeconomic communities, came from families with domestic violence issues, and had disengaged from schooling.

“Young people should not be in a prison-like setting. They don’t work, they’re more harmful,” he said.

“They come back into the same life situation before they entered, and they repeat crime.

“It’s a shared responsibility – our public leaders, people who have a public voice, our media, and our institutions – to be building an evidence base and promoting that evidence base.”


Ben Smee

The GuardianTramp

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