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Queensland government slammed for 'celebrating' youth arrest numbers

Dechlan Brennan -

The Queensland government has been criticised for congratulating itself on arresting more than 4,000 children and young people in the past year.

On Sunday, Premier Steven Miles, alongside Police Minister Mark Ryan, highlighted the "successes" of Operation Whiskey Unison - a high visibility police operation - by announcing police had arrested 4,149 juveniles on 7,551 charges. 

These included arrests for drug, weapons, traffic, property crime and bail offences.

"It is incredible to see such high visibility and engagement come from this operation, as it shows we are holding these offenders accountable for their actions," Minister Ryan said.

“The engagement side of policing is just as important as enforcement, because we know intervention and rehabilitation for young offenders is crucial in breaking the cycle of crime and delivering long-term change.”

The government had said the operation also focuses on prevention of youth crime by utilising community engagement and regular patrols. 

However, data has shown an explosion of Indigenous children being arrested, charged and incarcerated - both in juvenile facilities and adult watch houses - since new laws criminalising breach of bail for children were introduced last year.

On Tuesday, the Justice Reform Initiative’s Queensland campaign coordinator, Aysha Kerr, told National Indigenous Times bringing more people into the justice system was “no cause for celebration,” especially when more than 4,000 of them were children. 

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

Ms Kerr, who is a descendant of the Ngugi people on Quandamooka country, highlighted more than half of the children and young people in the Queensland criminal justice system had been impacted by domestic and family violence. 

“Nearly a third are living in unstable or unsuitable accommodation, and nearly half are not enrolled in education or training, or working,” she said. 

“We are letting children down by introducing them to the revolving door of the justice system rather than taking a pragmatic and trauma-informed approach that addresses the root causes of offending and changes trajectories for the benefit of everyone in the community.”

The arrests announcement comes in the midst of an approach by the Queensland government to ward off Opposition accusations of being ‘soft on crime,’ which has seen them twice override the state’s Human Rights Act in the last year. 

This has led to Indigenous children pleading guilty for crimes they hadn’t committed in order to avoid spending time in adult watch houses. Human rights groups have recently said the Miles government was fuelling a “race-to-the-bottom” on youth justice laws. 

Greens MP Michael Berkman said the state government was making Queensland the nation's crime capital through their “knee-jerk, band-aid policies".

“Labor’s new laws mean many of these children will likely spend extended periods of time in adult police watch houses, with their human rights suspended, and come out much more likely to reoffend,” Mr Berkman said. 

He said you don’t prevent crime by arresting children once a crime is committed. Rather, you prevent it by addressing the root causes.

“Expanding free school meals, tackling homelessness, funding youth mental healthcare including drug and alcohol treatment, and supporting community-led intervention programs,” Mr Berkman said. 

Evidence shows youth offending is on a long-term downward trajectory; however some break-ins and car-theft rates have moved back to pre-pandemic levels after a drop off during 2020-2021.

Queensland, like every state, sees a higher rate of offending by 10–17-year-olds than the general population, but this gap has been closing over time.

The rhetoric from both major political parties has fuelled vigilante action against Indigenous children, with shocking levels of racism on online forums - including mainstream news sites - going largely unmoderated. 

Advocates have routinely called for “smarter, not tougher” legislation to improve youth crime, but this has seemingly fallen on deaf ears, with the opposition arguing they will go even harder on youth crime if they are elected this year. 

Ms Kerr said bringing more people into a “punitive system” is not the marker of a stronger society. 

“We need to be doing more to support Queenslanders, rather than celebrating how many are being locked up,” she said.

National Indigenous Times has asked Queensland Police for a comprehensive break down of Whiskey Unison's results by offence type, as well as an overall breakdown of all youth arrests in Queensland in the same time period.

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