Saving a generation lost in the youth justice crisis

This article first appeared in the July 2019 edition of Proctor.

There has been a boisterous war of words, rampant blame gaming, fatiguing finger-pointing and knee-jerk quick-fixes to Queensland’s youth justice crisis since revelations in mid-May about the dozens of children being held in dangerous adult police watch houses.

But, has anything really been realistically achieved since then to rectify the problem in the short term or consider enacting long-term measures or strategies?

Queensland’s Premier Anna Palaszczuk, assorted government ministers, departmental heads, opposition party chiefs, various interest groups and the mainstream media have all taken a position and offered myriad solutions to a very complex issue that is often metaphorically drowned out by so-called ‘community expectations’ to be protected from ‘rampant juvenile crime.’

In the seven weeks since the ABC Four Corners program ‘Inside the Watch House’ exposed details of up to 70 children being held at Brisbane’s Roma Street watch house alongside serious criminals, there has been much debate and public funding committed to provide solutions.

The Queensland Labor Government responded by committing $550 million – notably before the program aired, but a day before Child Safety and Youth Minister Di Farmer was interviewed for the show – to building a new youth detention centre and expanding an existing facility ($320 million) and programs and resources to provide better support services and access to justice initiatives ($230 million).

It also established a new ‘department’ with the appointment of Queensland’s Deputy Police Commissioner Bob Gee as its Youth Justice Director-General. While the position created was new, no additional staff were allocated to Mr Gee, other than the staff already employed by the existing Department of Justice. In effect, Mr Gee was the head of a department in name only.

The LNP’s response to the crisis was to pepper the government with relentless criticism for failing to act before the ABC program aired.

On May 16, State Opposition leader Deb Frecklington proposed her LNP Party’s solution to the dilemma – the holding of yet another Royal Commission.

QLS responded on 13 May, the morning after the program aired, by saying it was simply appalling that so many young children were being warehoused in adult watch house cells alongside seriously dangerous adult criminals, including sex offenders.

QLS President Bill Potts at the time said there was no need for a Royal Commission, saying the Atkinson Report on Youth Justice released in July last year had already identified and recommended 77 areas for reform – the majority of which proposed strategies and programs for the diversion of children away from the courts and custody.

After considerable consultation with members, in particular the QLS’s Children’s Law Committee, the Society wrote to the Premier Palaszczuk and Ms Farmer on 31 May, calling on the government to implement easy and practical measures to ensure the safety and future welfare of youth offenders.

“The Society…express great concern that the detention and treatment of children and young people runs contrary to the charter of youth justice principles in the Youth Justice Act 1992 and the Queensland Police Service Operational Procedures Manual and Australia’s obligations under international law and custom,’’ Mr Potts’ letter read.

“We also note that the Queensland Parliament has recently passed the Human Rights Act 2019. Although this legislation is not yet in force, there is obviously an intention by the Queensland government to protect the rights of children in the criminal process.’’

To that end, Mr Potts said QLS strongly recommended the implementation of an eight-point plan of short term measures to alleviate the crisis and detention overcrowding:

  • an increase of the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years for all offences, or at least summary offences
  • an assurance that no children under 14 years of age will be housed in watch houses
  • strict adherence to the Queensland Family & Child Commission Joint agency protocol to reduce preventable police call-outs to residential care services
  • that the security upgrade at the YDCs be completed as a matter of absolute urgency and that the 36 beds become available as a matter of priority
  • the provision of more funding to the Office of the Public Guardian to allow community visitors to work with youth detention facility staff to identify rooms that are fit for sharing and habitation within the particular youth detention facility
  • a commitment to review bail for children and young people, especially for those children and young people who are denied bail on welfare grounds
  • an assurance from child safety that accommodation placement will be made available for all children and young people in care within 48 hours of arrest
  • children who are appearing by videolink from the watch house continue to have access to all of the supports offered through the pilot programs offered at Brisbane Children’s Court (education and mental health) as would be available as if they were present at court.

Mr Potts said QLS stood ready to assist all agencies or political parties in resolving the current crisis to ensure the current generation of troubled youth were afforded every opportunity for build a bright, positive and hopeful future after having had a brush with the Queensland Youth Justice system.

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