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Queensland bail laws driving kids to plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit

Dechlan Brennan -

Young people in Queensland are pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit to avoid spending time in detention under new bail laws, advocates say.

The state, which has the largest youth prison population in Australia, recently introduced new bail laws the government calls the "toughest in the nation".

The new legislation criminalising breach of bail for youth offenders required the state government to override its own Human Rights Act.

Youth Advocacy Centre chief executive Katherine Hayes told National Indigenous Times they are seeing children plead guilty to avoid spending time in detention.

"We have seen children plead guilty to charges because they are less likely to receive a sentence. Whilst if they are on remand, they are highly likely to be held in detention – often for a number of months… Over 80 per cent of children in detention are on remand," she said, noting that young people are kept in detention for crimes unlikely to carry a custodial sentence.

"By pleading guilty they get out, but the consequence of this is a criminal history. As such, you're more likely to be declared a serial offender in the future."

Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall told National Indigenous Times reports of children pleading guilty to crimes to avoid periods of remand is a "stark illustration of how broken the current approach to youth justice is".

"The fact children may face longer periods of detention awaiting a trial than they would if found guilty of the crime they are charged with is terrible," he said.

"The reality is that many of them will spend some of that time in police watchhouses designed to hold adults."

Mr McDougall, who was highly critical of the laws when they were introduced in March, said community safety required genuine rehabilitation opportunities for young people.

"Detaining children in greater numbers for lesser offences does the exact opposite… Children should only be detained as a last resort; we are failing them by locking them up at record rates, and we are failing the community as well, because we know that the earlier children are detained, the more likely they are to become recidivist adult offenders."

Change the Record acting executive officer Maggie Munn told National Indigenous Times the system was "nightmarish".

"That these kids are choosing a life-long criminal record which will affect their ability to seek employment, get housing or even volunteer, just to stay out of detention, shows you what is facing these kids. [It] is a choice of nightmares. Our kids deserve better."

Queensland police data shows 169 children have been charged under the new offence – some as young as 11. Of the 169 children, 112 are Indigenous.

First Nations children account up 62 per cent of Queensland's youth detention population, and 84 per cent of youth detainees kept in solitary confinement, despite First Nations people only making up 7.8 per cent of the Queensland youth population.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children are disproportionately targeted by police and are more likely to be charged and held in remand than their white peers. Just in this past week, we have heard disturbing reports of Aboriginal children being targeted and harassed by police," Ms Munn said.

New Queensland youth justice minister Di Farmer, who previously said a punitive approach would cause recidivism, has defended the laws, which has seen youth imprisonment and reoffending skyrocket.

Sister Inside chief executive Debbie Kilroy OAM told National Indigenous Times: "it is well established that imprisonment is not a successful strategy to reduce crime."

"These kinds of responses do not encourage people to keep their communities safe…it teaches people to respond with violence."

"They are arresting and imprisoning children at rates that are not demonstrably linked to actual incidents of crime.

"We see massive numbers of charges being laid against a child simultaneously, and see charges escalated to far greater seriousness."

Ms Hayes said young people were increasingly being put on 24-hour curfews, which were easy to breach and "setting kids up for failure".

She said the Youth Advocacy Centre seen young people impacted in a variety of ways.

"We have seen a lot of young people whose non-criminal conduct has now been criminalised."

The National Indigenous Times was told of one case of a minor on bail for alleged armed robbery forced to live with his mother and abusive step-father under bail conditions, which resulted in him being homeless. The new laws meant the boy being homeless was itself a breach of bail and a criminal offence.

Ms Killroy said "any community that has its children removed and imprisoned will suffer, but these practices are targeting communities that are already marginalised".

"We know that communities have been harmed by the same policies and practices that are harming their children, and we are continuing these cycles of harm... People have to understand that it is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken adults."

Ms Hayes said treatment in Townsville's Cleveland youth detention centre, where children have been kept in solitary confinement for days at a time, "only leads repeat offending".

"It definitely does not improve recidivism. In addition, because of the under staffing in the Queensland detention centres, we are seeing kids come out angry, disconnected and not rehabilitated, which is not improving community safety."

National Indigenous Times contacted the Queensland youth justice minister for comment.

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