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More prisons not the answer: Anti-prison initiative slams Palaszczuk government's decision to build new youth remand centre

Dechlan Brennan -

The Queensland Government’s announcement of a new remand centre to deal with the increasing number of children in detention has been criticised as leading the state away from improvements in community safety. 

The Justice Reform Initiative, a coalition of more than 120 patrons; including Aboriginal leaders, former High Court judges and politicians, have lent their voice to abolishing Australia's high rate of incarceration and reliance on prisons as a means of criminal deterrence. 

Last week, the Palaszczuk government announced a new youth remand facility in Wacol, in south-western Brisbane. The government argued it will lead to better outcomes for young people in detention, at the cost of $250 million. 

“Earlier this year, we passed new legislation to enact some of the strongest youth justice laws in the nation, and these are holding serious repeat offenders to account,” Youth Justice Minister Di Farmer said.

This legislation has led to Queensland locking up more youth than any other state or territory in the country. 

Latest statistics show the rate of incarceration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in Queensland is 153.3 per 10,000, compared to 7.5 per 10,000 for non-Indigenous young people. 

Many come from difficult backgrounds, suffering from trauma, abuse and suffer from mental and/or behavioural issues. One-third of the children who have been targeted by the youth-crime crackdown are under child protection orders. 

Some even name the state as their guardian. 

Justice Reform Initiative executive director Dr Mindy Sotiri says despite the government needing urgent action to remove children from adult watchhouses, a new remand centre is a band-aid solution that will only entrench the issues that have brought children into contact with the criminal justice system. 

“Building new prisons is not the answer,” Dr Sotiri said. 

“Locking children up, whether on remand or in detention, only compounds the issues which have brought them to that point.” 

National Indigenous Times reported in June that children in Queensland were pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit in order to avoid being incarcerated. 

In August, the Queensland state government took the unprecedented action of overriding its Human Right Act for the second time in six months, leading to almost 200 Indigenous and welfare groups to condemn their action as "outrageous and deliberately harmful."

The overriding of the act came as the state, in struggling to house youth offenders in youth detention facilities, implemented legislation to allow children to be imprisoned in police watchhouses designed for adults.

Dr Sotiri says that children not being kept in adult facilities is no excuse for more facilities to be built. 

“There is absolutely an urgent need to get children out of watchhouses. There is no doubt that the serious mistreatment of children in places of adult detention requires an immediate response,” she said. 

“However, rushing to build more cells for children instead of looking for the evidence-based solutions to this problem is incredibly short-sighted.”

Minister Farmer told parliament last month that youth offending had declined 30 per cent in the previous five years. 

However, in the past two years, there has been an increase in serious repeat offender numbers in the state, with the Brisbane Times reporting “serious repeat offender” numbers rising by 66 per cent - to 656 - in the 2022-2023 financial year. 

These figures are cited as reasons to tighten legislation, such as the criminalisation for breaches of bail for accused youth offenders in March. This, in turn, has driven detention numbers skywards (and has contributed to whether someone is classified as a serious offender).

Youth Advocacy Centre chief executive, Katherine Hayes told National Indigenous Times that the numbers are evidence “incarceration doesn’t work.” 

“The underlying issues of serious re offenders are still not being addressed,” she said. 

Building new remand centres won't do anything to reduce crime. This is just another band-aid solution that doesn't go close to fixing the complex root causes of youth crime.” 

Dr Sotiri highlights that the major cause of early exposure to the prison system, is recidivism, which will ultimately lead to crime in the future and negatively impact the community. 

“The evidence is crystal clear – sending children to prison ultimately increases the risk of re-offending and creates a pipeline into adult prisons. Detention does not work to deter crime, to rehabilitate, or improve community safety,” she said. 

“To address the overcrowding that is putting children in watchhouses, we need to address the drivers of over-crowding – including the knee-jerk policy responses that drive up over-incarceration. We need to address the drivers of crime.

“Queensland already locks up more children than anywhere else in Australia, and it is not working to deter crime or to keep the community safe. Queenslanders deserve a policy reset, based on hard evidence of what actually works in youth justice.”

This argument was even put forward by Minister Farmer in 2018. 

“If we send them to detention, if we lock them up and throw away the key, we know that they are almost guaranteed to reoffend,” she said at the time.

Her party’s U-turn on the policy has caused consternation, and little evidence that it benefits the state financially. The Justice Reform Initiative puts detaining children at more than $2000 a day, compared to less expensive alternatives that focus on community led initiatives. 

The government has seemingly admitted that this cost-benefit analysis is irrelevant to their overall thinking, however. In 2020, when the business case summary for the state’s third youth prison was being formulated, it stated: “As a result, typical comparative economic analysis, such as cost-benefit analysis, would not provide a meaningful assessment of the project’s costs and benefits".

This cost benefit analysis, according to Dr Sotiri, will cost taxpayers both financially and socially in the future. 

“The evidence shows that we get far better results, for taxpayers and communities, when we invest in services that work directly with children in the community and actively divert children away from the justice system, rather than simply creating capacity to lock more kids up,” she said. 

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