The government's 'war on kids' won't stop the youth crime problem in Queensland, experts say


"If I had just one person that loved or cared about me … I think that would have reduced a lot of the crime."

Those are the blunt words of Georgia*, a young, well-spoken woman who was just 12 years old when she first landed in youth detention on car-stealing charges.

"Kids don't just wake up one day and decide they're going to go out and do crime and steal cars … that comes from extensive trauma history," she said.

She was just a toddler when she was taken off her drug-addicted, abusive and neglectful parents.

What followed was a cycle through foster care, residential care, and later stints in police watch houses and youth detention centres.

"I would have been in Childrens Court more than 50 times and for probably over 100 offences," she said.

"I had quite a lot of wilful damage charges, armed robbery, driving without a licence, and drug offences."

She was largely spending time with an older crowd — men aged in their 30s to 50s — who she recalls "sort of trained" her in how to steal things "or do things for them so they weren't caught".

"Other times, I wouldn't even be part of [the crime], however I would sort of be told to take the blame for it, and I would do that for them," she said.

'Safe' inside the walls of detention

Georgia* said she felt "safe" inside the walls of juvenile detention.

"Before that, I didn't know when I was going to eat next," she said.

She remembered vowing to take a different path when she got outside, but said the reality was "hard when there's nowhere safe for you to go" and she would find herself back with the same crowd.

"There wasn't anybody else, or anywhere else to go."

Now 20, in a steady job and preparing to begin university, she has provided insight into her past as a repeat juvenile offender and what needed to happen amid the Queensland government's crackdown on youth crime.

A man and woman smile at a wedding.
Matthew Field and Kate Leadbetter were killed in a hit-and-run in Brisbane earlier this month.(Supplied)

The police union called for changes after a spate of tragedies in Queensland, including the deaths of Matthew Field, Kate Leadbetter and their unborn baby, who were hit and killed by a stolen car allegedly driven by a 17-year-old on Australia Day.

On February 9, the Palaszczuk government announced a suite of tough new measures aimed at the "10 per cent" of repeat juvenile offenders.

These included trialling the use of GPS tracking devices as a bail condition for 16- and 17-year-olds, reversing the presumption for bail for some offences, and strengthening anti-hooning laws.

'We've turned this into a war on kids'

Law changes are expected to be introduced into parliament this week.

In an exclusive interview with the ABC, Queensland's former public guardian and now managing director of Child Wise, Natalie Siegel-Brown, said it was an "inappropriate time" for the government to bring in such measures.

"If this kid of 17 years of age was a few months older, would we even be having this discussion?

"More adults kill people in this way than kids, yet we've turned this into a war on kids."

Queensland's Public Guardian Natalie Siegel-Brown
Queensland's former public guardian Natalie Siegel-Brown said it was an "inappropriate time" for the government to bring in such measures.(ABC News)

She said the community had a right to feel safe, but authorities had to do what worked, not just what "felt tough".

"Nobody in the world has ever imprisoned their way out of crime or GPS-tracked their way out of crime," she said.

"No one has actually asked who these kids are and why they're doing what they're doing. Until we do that, sure it'll make us feel tougher, but it won't actually work.

"At the end of the day, no kid looks at a car and thinks, hang on, will a bail presumption be rebutted on me? Will my GPS tracker go off? That's not how it works."

Ms Siegel-Brown also echoed the concerns of others — like Queensland's Human Rights Commissioner — that changes could see more children being stuck in police watch houses — a crisis that came to a head in 2019.

Save the Children has called on Queensland MPs to vote down the proposed changes when they're introduced into parliament.

'Holistic, 24-7 support' needed

When asked if she thought any of the measures would have made a difference to her own offending, Georgia said no.

"I think it would have further criminalised me as a child, not because I would be choosing to rebel against that, but because there were times when I didn't have anywhere to live so I wouldn't have been able to charge the battery in a GPS tracker," she said.

She said juvenile offending would not stop unless there was "holistic, 24/7 support around a young person".

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A new taskforce was formed in Townsville, to clamp down on repeat youth offenders, after the death of Jennifer Board.(Supplied: Queensland Police Service)

The Queensland Youth Justice Department's 2019-20 annual report said the number of young people charged with offences was down 23 per cent from the previous year.

But there was a "10 per cent" group of repeat offenders responsible for about 44 per cent of the youth crime.

A 2019 report by the Griffith Criminology Institute suggested chronic offending had grown and tended to be concentrated in more socially disadvantaged areas of regional and remote Queensland.

Education for teens 'hugely protective'

New Zealand's Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said how to effectively deal with repeat youth offenders and reduce their crime was "probably the biggest question in youth justice".

Commissioner Becroft said in the late 1980s, New Zealand had a "revolution" in how it approached young offenders — with a push to use court less, emphasise community-based alternative action, and reserve criminal charges "for the absolute smallest group possible".

He believed it had been an "unqualified success," saying youth crime rates had dropped and continued to fall.

"You could almost say children and adults are a different species of human being … with a brain and frontal lobe that's still developing," he said.

"Simply [applying] a junior adult model won't cut it.

Judge Andrew Becroft stands with arms folded looking into camera.
NZ Commissioner for Children, Judge Andrew Becroft, said education was one "hugely protective factor".(Supplied)

"In New Zealand at the moment, we're very much of the view that those young people who offend repetitively and seriously, usually almost invariably come with a constellation of issues.

"Hitting them harder, punishing them more profoundly isn't a recipe for enduring rehabilitation."

While he would not comment on Queensland's measures — saying "it'd be a rare New Zealander who would want to comment on an overseas jurisdiction, let alone an Australian one" — he did urge anyone considering youth justice to research the evidence.

"[Youth justice] is a highly charged debate worldwide. It becomes a political football," he said.

"In a sense, everybody in the debate has been a child and most have had children themselves and everyone brings homespun wisdom to the debate. But it's actually not a case of well-meaning amateurs."

He said education was one "hugely protective factor".

"There's no silver bullet, magic bullet, to reduce youth offending but if there was one, just keeping young people engaged in school to the age of 16 or 17 would be it," he said.

"Young people who are at school don't offend seriously — as a rule."

Georgia* agrees.

She said she enjoyed going to school in her primary years, but was moved around a lot, which meant she stopped attending later.

She said she used to "beg" people to enrol her again, but her criminal history became a barrier.

"That was really hard, because it meant that school could have been my one safe place, but I was denied that, so I was sort of pushed into that group I was hanging around with, as during the day there was nowhere else to go," she said.

What the politicians think

In announcing the reforms earlier this month, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the cabinet decision was unanimous.

The opposition leader said the LNP would not stand in the way, while repeating their own calls for breach of bail to be brought back as an offence for children.

The ABC contacted other parties and MPs to find out where each stood.

Greens MP Michael Berkman said the measures were a "knee-jerk response" and the "more tough-on-crime rhetoric" was not the answer.

One Nation MP Stephen Andrew called for a "reasonable approach," saying he wanted to treat the cause, not the symptoms.

Headshot of Katter's Australian Party Queensland leader Robbie Katter
Robbie Katter said youth offenders should be forced to go to a remote destination as a "circuit breaker".(AAP: Darren England)

Declaring youth crime a serious issue in Mt Isa and Townsville, Katter's Australian Party Queensland leader Robbie Katter said the government's plan was "just tinkering at the edges" and youth offenders should be forced to go to a remote destination as a "circuit breaker".

In a statement, Children and Youth Justice Minister Leanne Linard said GPS trackers "have a proven track record" as a means of monitoring the behaviours of adults and are used to monitor juvenile offenders in other jurisdictions, including Western Australia and South Australia.

She said the government had invested more than $500 million in the state's youth justice system since 2015.

"This has focused on intervention services to stop young people from offending and reoffending and holding repeat offenders to account, as the community rightly expects," she said.

"This includes expanding the number of youth detention centres to three and increasing the number of beds across the state to 306 by March.

"Every effort is made to keep young people, who become involved in the youth justice system, engaged in their community, be it through education, work or training.

"Our suite of re-engagement and alternative learning programs in and around schools includes a court-based referral and advocacy service for 10- to 15-year-olds, where court liaison officers work with a range of support services to encourage children to re-engage."

The Premier has previously said former police commissioner Bob Atkinson would evaluate the latest measures.

*Not her real name, for legal reasons.

(Source)


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