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Youth justice methods under the microscope as groups urge Queensland government to change approach to avoid further incarceration

Dechlan Brennan -

Human rights, Indigenous and legal groups have written submissions to the Queensland Government, urging them to move away from the 'tough on crime' approach that has done little to stem youth incarceration.

The youth justice reform select committee called for submissions in the wake of an increased focus on youth crime which has resulted in the Labor government twice suspending the Human Rights Act in order to criminalise youth bail breaches and keep children in adult watch houses.

The rare and powerful independently chaired parliamentary committee is taking a bipartisan look at "all aspects" of youth justice; chaired by Independent Noosa MP Sandy Bolton.

The call for submissions, which closed on Wednesday, featured a significant number of groups calling for a change in approach from governments, with one noting the latest legislative reforms "have not resulted in a positive effect on recidivism rates".

Evidence has shown youth offending 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.

Nonetheless, strong sentiment in the media and by some politicians has seen vigilante justice attempted in Northern Queensland. Groups have told National Indigenous Times significant sympathy lies with victims of crime, however an increase in youth detention does nothing to rehabilitate, with recidivism more likely for children exposed early to the justice system.

Queensland has more young people in detention than any other jurisdiction and the highest rate of youth recidivism. Based on trends, the Department of Youth Justice, Employment, Small Business and Training estimates 428 per 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people will come into contact with the criminal justice system in 2023-2024.

Indigenous children in Queensland are 21.3 times more likely to be in the youth justice system than non-Indigenous children and represent 65 per cent of all children and young people in youth detention, despite making up only 8.8 per cent of the youth population.

Total youth admissions to watch houses increased by 452 per cent in the previous five years, with children being held in a watch house for more than one day increasing by 163 per cent.

The Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak (QATSICPP) submitted that children could not "understand safety if they have not experienced it".

"At a general level, increased disregard for authority and personal safety exhibited by the highest-risk offenders in Queensland is often a product of having survived serious adversity and adaptation to their environment," QATSICPP said.

"This highlights why it is critical that solutions must be trauma aware and healing informed and led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, grounding in culture and supporting young people on pathways to safety."

In their submission to the committee, the Queensland Human Rights Committee (QHRC) argued 'tough on crime' approaches to offences already committed "are not effective in rehabilitating children and reducing recidivism".

"In this context, the best outcome for victims, young offenders and the broader community will be achieved by initiatives that reduce reoffending and incarceration — by tackling the causes and consequences of youth crime," QHRC said.

This view was mirrored by the Youth Advocacy Centre (YAC), who submitted there was "no evidence" which showed detention reduces offending; "there is a large body of evidence to the contrary".

"Priority should be given to diverting children under 14 from the youth justice system, because the earlier they become involved, the more likely they are to become entrenched," YAC submitted.

The QHRC, whose commissioner Scott McDougal previously told National Indigenous Times he was "unaware" of increased penalties playing any role in the deterring of youth crime, argued this measure was consistent with "human rights obligations that emphasise children should only ever be arrested, detained, or imprisoned as a measure of last resort, for the shortest period of time, and that all efforts should be made to apply alternative measures."

Highlighting a shift away from rehabilitation and a focus on 'tough on crime' measures - including limiting the ability of judges to use discretion in applying bail for youths and announcing a raft of measures to fast-track children through the courts in order for them to spend "less time on remand and more time serving their sentences" - QHRC said the focus has seemingly been on infrastructure, not prevention.

"The only announced, coordinated Government action taken to meet the rights and needs of children and young people has been to build more capacity in youth detention centres, and to convert an existing watchhouse and build a new remand centre to detain young people until there is further capacity in youth detention centres," they said.

"The shift to a renewed focus on detention contributes to serious psychological and other harms for children and young people and does not contribute to the long-term safety of the community."

YAC agreed, with chief executive, Katherine Hayes submitting: "Instead of investing in prison infrastructure and holding young people in detention, funds should be committed towards comprehensive, coordinated and effective early intervention".

Abolitionist organisation Sisters Inside submitted to the committee no child should be held in prison, rather they need a connection to country, family and community.

"The Queensland community will never be made 'safe' by the state locking up and traumatising children," they said.

"Children merely come out of prison angrier and more isolated from positive influences. Evidently, Queensland's youth justice system has failed to stop children from committing 'offences.

"In the face of this manifest failure, it is clear that the recent 'crackdown' on 'youth crime' only serves to perpetuate colonial violence by isolating and harming First Nations young people."

Legal groups, including the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) Legal Aid Queensland both submitted that government policy - including criminalising bail - drastically increased incarceration levels, with the flow-on effect being further recidivism.

"We strongly oppose imprisonment as a viable option for deterring crime," the ALA submitted.

"The ALA strongly believes that one major influence on having less incidents of crime yet more people in prison is a 'tough on crime' approach and policies that tighten bail laws and mandatory minimum prison sentences."

Legal Aid Queensland pointed to reconnecting First Nations people with culture as a form of rehabilitation, noting the Youth Justice Act currently "doesn't provide a diversion to any sort of cultural programs for First Nations young people".

"First Nations values of the child's community should be central to their rehabilitation and throughout their care," the submission stated.

"Otherwise, when issues such as cultural and language barriers, racism, and discrimination arise, the associated harms may be compounded and entrench their disadvantage further while in the justice system and beyond."

Despite calls for a renewed approach and Labor themselves referring to the new bail laws as the "toughest in the country," the opposition have argued they will only expand these measures if elected.

Last week LNP leader David Crisafulli promised to "rewrite" the Youth Justice Act, arguing a "generation of untouchables have been created".

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