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The times change, the suffering remains

This article, by John Robertson, first appeared in the July 2019 edition of Proctor.

Tony Keim’s article in the June 2019 Proctor, ‘Suffer the children’, evoked strong emotions in me.

Not only as a human being, but because it reminded me of so many of the sad cases that I had encountered as a judge of the Childrens Court of Queensland (CCQ) from 1994 until my retirement last year.

His title, which evokes a passage from the Bible that has come into sharp focus in recent years, was also the title of a paper I delivered to the Medico-Legal Society of Queensland in May 2001, when I was president of the CCQ. My paper tracked the true story of a talented but troubled young Aboriginal woman, whom I had first met in court when she was 16. She was sentenced in the Supreme Court on her 19th birthday to 16 years in prison for the attempted murder of her courageous and committed long-term case worker. The paper follows the awful consequences for her following that sentence, which were carefully documented in the Forde Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (1998–1999).

I described her story as one of a child with great potential, who had complex needs, and who had fallen through the cracks in our criminal justice, corrections and health systems. Her case is one of many that haunt me to this day.

Tony’s article reminded me that, as a society, and a compassionate and caring one at that, we still have a long way to go in responding justly to the complex needs of children who enter our youth justice system and end up before a court. In my paper, I refer to the extensive research which establishes that if we can get in early with children like this one, and respond in a focused and individualised evidence-based way, we have a better chance of preventing the conduct escalating into violent offending. The Forde Inquiry, and others that have followed, also refers to the research that establishes that in every one of these cases, when a child commits a violent crime, he or she has come from a background of severe family dysfunctionality, including sexual and/or physical and psychological abuse, and consequential drug and alcohol abuse and, fundamentally, a lack of love and nurturing in their very early childhood.

When I was president, I somehow convinced the minister of the day and most members of the parliamentary committee charged with youth justice issues, to spend a morning in the court listening to the cases that I had to deal with. I know it affected them all. If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit, as I do, that if such had been my childhood then there is a fair chance that I too might be antisocial and angry with society. Instead, I just happened by chance to be born into a humble middle-class family in north Queensland where I was surrounded by adults who loved me and supported me.

We have to do better as a society. When we quietly cheer at some “tough on youth crime” measure, or don’t care that so many of the people who appear before our courts—child and adult—are homeless, a major predictor of criminal behavior, then we are complicit in what is happening now in our watch houses and prisons.

There are solutions, and some are much less expensive than building more prisons. As a judge, I always regarded New Zealand as the gold standard when it comes to dealing with youth crime. It is a country like ours with the same significant social problems particularly arising from lack of equality of opportunity. Restorative justice principles have been at the heart of that country’s approach to youth crime for a long time, and the evidence is that it works, both to reduce crime and recidivism but also as a deterrent. From my own experience, I can recall many cases where the young offender was much more concerned about the restorative justice approach than anything I could do as a judge. Restorative justice was introduced into New Zealand’s adult sentencing laws in 2014.

John Robertson is a former solicitor, District Court and Childrens Court judge and now Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council Chair.

Read more QLS Proctor articles on youth justice.

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