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'Political point-scoring' : NSW government faces criticism for new bail laws

Dechlan Brennan -

More legal and advocacy groups have expressed dismay at planned changes to New South Wales' bail laws for children, labelling the move "misguided" and unlikely to make the community safer.

The new legislation, which will be reviewed after 12 months, include a tightening of bail laws, and an introduction of 'post and boast' penalties for children, has been slammed by advocacy groups, who argue it is a knee-jerk response which will push the state further away from their Closing the Gap targets.

On Tuesday, the initial leaked reports led to outrage amongst multiple Indigenous groups across the state, with ALS NSW/ACT chief executive Karly Warner labelling it a "devastating betrayal of Aboriginal children in NSW".

The Justice Reform Initiative's executive director, Mindy Sotiri, said the government has reverted back to political posturing based on a failed 'tough on crime' approach.

"Tightening bail laws to keep more children locked up, and particularly children who are already caught up in the system, might work for political point-scoring in the short-term but it has simply never worked to prevent crime or keep the community safe," Dr Sotiri said.

"It instead achieves the opposite.

"All the evidence shows that the earlier children have interaction with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to be cycling in and out of it for years to come. That's a bad result for children, for taxpayers and for community safety."

Dr Mindy Sotiri (Image: Charmayne Allison/ABC Alice Springs)

NSW Premier Chris Minns said, "no one was interested in introducing legislation where we will lock people up and throw away the key." The Sydney Morning Herald reported Mr Minns conceded there was consternation in the Labor caucus as a result of the decision.

The state government also announced a $26.2 million package to "support community safety and wellbeing, particularly in regional NSW", he noted.

"We need to work across government – police, schools, mental health – and importantly in partnership with community leaders, Aboriginal organisations and NGOs."

Guardian Australia reported the premier had shut down any plans to raise the age of criminal responsibly, despite medical, human rights, Indigenous and legal groups calling for it.

"We're not proposing legislative change in relation to that. Self-evidently, it will fly in the face of the government's proposed changes right now," he said.

The new laws will introduce an extra bail test for teenagers aged between 14 and 18 who are charged with committing serious offences - such as break and enter or car theft - whilst on bail for the same offences.

As a result, the bail authority - including police, judges and magistrates - will now require a higher level of confidence that a young person will avoid committing further serious offences whilst on bail.

The Premier has previously been criticised for refusing to blame the NSW police for Indigenous incarceration, despite a significant number of incidents.

Dr Sotiri said the 'tough on crime' have already resulted in disastrous outcomes for Indigenous children in Queensland.

"NSW needs to take a smarter approach that meaningfully invests in evidence-based responses to crime that genuinely disrupt its reoccurrence," she said.

Greens justice spokesperson, Sue Higginson, said the vulnerable children in NSW "deserve better than the knee-jerk law and order responses that Premier Chris Minns has announced today".

"Young people that are refused bail for break and enters or motor theft offences will wind up in juvenile detention facilities, that's the honest truth," Ms Higginson said.

"We know that these young people that enter correctional centres will wind up in adult prisons at a rate between half and three quarters of them."

She said no one wanted to see children engaged in crime, but a tougher approach risked only further traumatising children.

"A sensible, and caring, response to youth crime is doubling down on diversionary and other support services that improve wellbeing and reduce the rates of offending and recidivism," Ms Higginson said.

"We need to be looking beneath the surface of youth crime, not just cutting the top off of the problem when it is politically expedient."

In the year ending 2022-2023, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children and young people made up more than 50 per cent of the average daily number of young people in custody.

The Law Society of NSW said they welcomed the increased funding, but warned a failure to consult with experts risked flawed legislation.

President Brett McGrath said he was "disappointed" the legislation was announced to introduce a 'temporary' tightened bail test for certain offences without input from experts.

"Tightening the test for bail will result in more children being sent into custody," he said.

"In circumstances where youth justice centres are often many hours from child defendants' families and communities, this change has the potential to do a great deal more harm than good."

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