The Queensland government ignored more than 20 warnings that its youth justice policies would overload the state’s detention centres and police watch houses, more than two years before the “urgent” move to suspend human rights protections for children held on remand.
Last week, the state amended legislation with no warning after being advised that children being detained in police watch house cells – some for up to 40 days – had likely been held unlawfully for years.
Labor MPs who had serious reservations about the move, which included a provision to override the Human Rights Act, were told it was necessary to avoid a legal challenge that could see dozens of children transferred out of police custody and into overcrowded youth detention centres.
“It would have meant every child went to the youth detention centres, and clearly that is a capacity issue, which we had not foreseen,” the youth justice minister, Di Farmer, said.
In 2021, when the state government passed legislation removing the presumption in favour of bail for some children, more than 20 separate organisations – including peak legal organisations, youth organisations and independent government agencies – wrote submissions warning the measures would choke the detention system by placing more children on remand.
Many of those submissions also warned that the situation would “increase the risk of reoffending” and turbocharge recidivism rates.
“The likely consequence … is an increase of children in custody, in circumstances where the limited capacity of Queensland’s youth detention centres may result in children detained for prolonged periods in police watch houses,” the Queensland Human Rights Commission warned.
The Youth Affairs Network said the law changes would “only increase the number of children in the youth prisons, leading to overcrowding, overflow to watch houses and eventually building of more youth prisons … all of which will only act as a pipeline to the adult criminal justice system.”
Repeated piecemeal changes to youth justice laws since 2021 – expressly aimed at keeping some children in custody – have created a situation where the government’s strategy is now inherently contradictory.
One of the “pillars” of the 2019 youth justice strategy – still formal policy – is that children should be kept out of custody; and that the state should have measurable targets aimed at “reducing the number of children on remand in detention”.
The police minister, Mark Ryan, has repeatedly made statements that appear in direct contrast with that policy – including that the state’s laws are designed to jail more children.
“This government makes no apology for our tough stance on youth crime,” Ryan said last week. “As a result of our strong laws, more young offenders are in custody for longer periods of time and this is impacting youth detention capacity.”
In a letter to the state government on Monday, the Queensland Council of Social Services said the latest changes to youth justice laws were “a clear indicator of policy failure”.
QCOSS chief executive Aimee McVeigh told Guardian Australia the state’s youth justice laws were “slogan-based policies” that were not based on evidence or good practice, and had ultimately failed to keep the community safe.
Guardian Australia has approached Farmer for comment.