The former president of the Queensland children’s court, John Robertson, says statistics “completely refute” the notion there is a major youth crime wave in the state, and warned that even “half an hour in a watch house” can be damaging to a child.
Next week, the state will debate proposed new legislation that includes measures to charge children with criminal offences for breaching bail conditions. The government will override its own Human Rights Act, claiming exceptional circumstances, to pass the bill.
Robertson, who is now the chair of the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council (QSAC), did not make specific reference to those government proposals. But he told Guardian Australia that approaches designed in response to “outrageous” and serious criminal incidents – that effectively “lump in” all children who come into contact with the youth justice system – risked undermining community safety.
“No one underestimates or understates the seriousness of some of these recent crimes,” Robertson said.
“Conflating the whole response to youth justice to outrageous criminal acts that have been the subject of so much debate, it’s likely to undermine community safety and increase people’s fear of crime, and it leads to a political response and not an evidence-based response.”
Robertson was speaking in a personal capacity ahead of the release of a report by QSAC into the sentencing of young people, aged under 14, which sought to understand the implications of the push to increase the age of criminal responsibility.
The research report found that fewer than 10% of children sentenced for crimes were aged 10-13. Children aged 10 and 11 only made up 1.1% of those sentenced. Children were overwhelmingly sentenced for property offences.
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The data also suggests that, in general, the number of children aged 10-13 sentenced for offences had dropped.
The number of children under 14 sentenced for offences during the most recent three years in the report – 2019-20 to 2021-22 – was lower than at any point during the previous decade.
Robertson said the report suggested that “alternative responses to sentencing could be considered for these very young children”.
“You couldn’t be criticised for believing … a lot of commentators, particularly online, that we’re in the grip of some sort of major youth crime wave,” he said.
“The stats just completely refute that, and the evidence refutes that.”
The state government’s new youth justice legislation includes increased penalties for some offences. It is being introduced alongside policing measures, including high-visibility patrols, and about $100m for programs to curb the causes of crime.
The state has justified these new laws by citing an increase in a cohort of serious and recidivist offenders.
Robertson said every president of the children’s court, dating back to his own tenure from 1999 to 2002, was aware of a similar issue within the community.
“The reality is there’s always been a cohort of kids … a very small cohort that commit these violent offences.
“I’ve seen this pattern for a long, long time ... that are these repeat recidivist dangerous offenders. But we’ve always known about that.
“In a logical sense, if we separate how we respond to these outrageous crimes to the vast majority of people who come into contact with the youth justice system then we’re taking a step in the right direction.
“The problem seems to be that the debate seems to lump them all together and demonises kids.”
Robertson said the notion that tough penalties would serve as a deterrent for young offenders was “clearly unreal” and not supported by any evidence. He said evidence showed that a punitive reaction to youth offending would “criminalise kids” and undermine community safety.
“Half an hour in a watch house and a detention centre will damage a child that hasn’t been in detention before,” he said.
“This is what we’ve got to grapple with. Do we really need to do something about this and enhance community safety, or do we just want to act punitively?”
Robertson also defended judges from recent criticism in relation to their treatment of children in the system.
“Judges are human too, I had many many times over the years where I was deeply moved as a human being by the particular suffering of a victim as a result of criminal offending …
“Of course, we must take into account the effect on victims.”