Experts say there is zero evidence to support Annastacia Palaszczuk’s controversial decision to pursue criminal charges against Queensland children who breach bail.
Human rights organisations have also delivered scathing criticisms of the government’s bid to override the state’s Human Rights Act to legislate the offence for children, warning that it likely won’t reduce offending.
The Guardian spoke to five experts from four universities around Australia, all of whom were unanimous in their conclusion that the new laws would only achieve the result of putting more kids behind bars.
Palaszczuk, the Queensland premier, announced the criminalisation of breach of bail on Monday, despite the government previously ruling it out.
Griffith University human rights law professor Sarah Joseph said the “sudden reversal of policy” smacked of a government “in panic mode”.
“They’ve adopted a law which, frankly, they know is flawed and which they’ve said many times is flawed,” she said. “It’s not good enough to say ‘this is in response to community sentiment’ – this is something which targets disadvantaged children.”
Joseph said the law would needlessly drag more children into contact with the criminal justice system for longer.
“It targets behaviour which is not necessarily, in of itself, criminal – for example, having to stay on the street for a night,” she said.
“And no one believes that extensive contact with the criminal process, especially for unnecessary reasons, is good for anybody, let alone children.”
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Ross Homel, emeritus professor of criminology at the same university, said recent crime data suggested a decline in the youth offender population and the new laws would only prove “a very effective way of increasing the youth crime rate”.
“I know of no evidence anywhere in the criminological literature that would support the effectiveness of such a measure,” he said. “It’s only going to increase the number of kids in pretrial detention.”
Australian National University criminologist and associate professor in law Faith Gordon said her class of 400 law students used Queensland as a case study of “taking major steps backwards” in a class of criminal law and procedure on Tuesday.
“It’s just such an example of sort of popular punitivism taking over and proposals not being based in what we know, from the evidence, is effective and what is not effective,” she said.
“It’s really concerning, surprising and shocking that these proposals are being made.”
University of South Australia law and criminal justice emeritus professor Rick Sarre described it as “a potential recipe for disaster”, citing the damning Victorian coroner’s report into the death in custody of 37-year-old Aboriginal woman Veronica Nelson, who was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting and alleged breach of bail and died in her cell.
Sarre said the Queensland government’s new laws were “completely and utterly ridiculous”.
“All it will do is put more youth behind bars and pull young people further and deeper into the system,” he said. “And the deeper you go into the system, the greater the likelihood that you’re going to have a life of crime as an adult.”
Sarre said most breach-of-bail issues had “nothing to do with people committing new offences and nothing to do with trying to escape the jaws of justice” but “everything to do with dysfunctional lives”.
Prof Tamara Walsh, from the University of Queensland’s school of law, said the “horrific reality” that spoke to that dysfunction in the lives of some young offenders was that they felt safer in detention.
“That’s a terrible indictment on our social services and on our government,” she said.
“Personally, I can’t think of one single instance where a breach-of-bail offence does anything other than make the situation worse.”
Various groups also criticised the move on Wednesday, with Mena Waller, the Queensland director of Save the Children’s 54 reasons, saying young people “deserve the chance to learn from their mistakes without being harmed in prison”.
“The decision that has been made … without meaningful community consultation and lacks evidence to support the argument that criminalising breach of bail will be an effective strategy for tackling the state’s current issues,” Waller said.
The Queensland Law Society president, Chloé Kopilović, warned the new offence could “lead to a substantial increase in the financial cost of remand and recidivist offending”.
The chief executive of the Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion, Matilda Alexander, said children with disabilities were already “highly represented in the criminal justice system”.
“QAI has visited youth prisons and can see no benefit in locking up more and more kids in this broken system,” Alexander said.
“This is the first time since we gained human rights protections that they have been trampled on in this way.”