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Childrens Court President reveals lifelong trauma of boy handed ‘excessive’ sentence

Queensland’s Childrens Court Chief Judge has chronicled the significant hardship and childhood trauma endured by a young boy who received an “excessive” sentence from a Darling Downs magistrate.

The 16-year-old boy, whom Childrens Court President Deborah Richards has given the pseudonym ‘Douglas’, had a significant criminal history for a litany of offences dating back to 23 December 2016, when he was 12.

Douglas had been the subject of a myriad of court orders – conditional release, community service, probation and stints in custody while on remand for fresh offences.

On 15 March this year, a Dalby Childrens Court magistrate sentenced Douglas – who had at that time already spent 25 days in pre-sentence custody – to six months’ detention to be served in the community by way of a conditional release order, 12 months’ probation and ordered him to perform 56 hours of unpaid community service.

On June 7, Douglas’s case was brought before Judge Richards for review of the sentence in circumstances where prosecutors, in support of submissions made by Douglas’s legal representative, conceded the sentence imposed by the magistrate was “excessive”.

Judge Richards, in a written decision delivered on 19 July, referred to the numerous hardships and significant trauma Douglas had been subjected throughout his short life by citing details contained in a pre-sentence report prepared for the court.

“The report indicates that prior to his birth and whilst his mother was carrying him, she was subject to extreme domestic violence,” Judge Richards said. “The parents separated when he was one. He has had little to do with his father who has been subject to extended periods of incarceration.

“In 2011 the child’s stepfather and two half-siblings passed away in a motor vehicle accident which resulted in the mother being unable to care for herself and (Douglas – who was then six).

“She fell into heavy depression and (Douglas) was often left uncared for and unsupervised.

“(Douglas) would arrive at school late with no food or not attend and he would be found walking the streets of Dalby by police.

“Police would take him home and be advised that the mother was unable to look him because she was heavily under the influence of alcohol.

“In February 2014 the Department of Child Safety became involved in his care but by this stage (Douglas) had very complex behavioural and mental health issues.

“He is no longer in the Department’s care but he has a turbulent and unstable relationship with mother and … (she) has been in a series of domestically violent relationships.

“He was residing with his grandmother but that fell apart when he was unable to follow rules and boundaries set by her.”

Judge Richards also noted Douglas had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

She also chronicled submissions made to court by lawyers for Douglas.

“It was submitted on (Douglas’s) behalf that he found detention stressful and he was generally scared of the police,” Judge Richards said. “It was submitted that there had been an episode in the (police) watch house where he experienced a mental health episode … (and an) ambulance was called and he was given a needle to calm him down.

“He has a fear of that happening again. This submission was supported by the facts one of the charges for which (Douglas) received community service … related to him tearing up a shirt in an attempt to (harm) himself while in the watch house.”

In granting the review to reduce the sentence, Judge Richards said: “(Douglas) has suffered significant trauma in his young life.

“The Crown concedes that the order (made by the magistrate) was excessive in the circumstances.

“The offending in this case was not particularly serious. The child was still very young and he had spent some time in custody.

“Given the nature of the offending, detention, a sentence of last resort, was not appropriate.”

The sentence was substituted with one of 12 months’ probation and 28 hours’ community service.

In April (2021), Queensland Parliament passed a number of reforms to the state’s Youth Justice Act as part of the Government’s response to a reported significant increase in youth crime.

Youth Justice Minister Leanne Linard, in a statement released at the time, said the Government’s package of youth justice reforms had been designed to target a “small cohort of recidivist” child offenders who caused a disproportionate amount of harm, damage and crime in the community.

Police Minister Mark Ryan said the suite of reforms was about targeting the “hardcore, repeat offenders” – the 10% of young offenders who frequently put the community at risk.

“Ten percent of all youth offenders account for 48% of all youth crime,” he said. “It is this group we are targeting with all the legislative and frontline strategies at our disposal.”

This month QLS Proctor has reported on five recent cases in which Childrens’ Court Judge Ian Dearden has reduced sentences handed out to children aged between 12 and 14 by North Queensland magistrates.

In one case, Judge Dearden highlighted a “substantial lack of understanding’’ demonstrated by a Mareeba Childrens Court magistrate sentencing, and the lawyer representing, a deeply traumatised 13-year-old boy who spent 60 days languishing in pre-sentence detention.

In another, Judge Dearden commented on a Townsville magistrate’s failure to take into account the almost four months a 13-year-old child had spent in detention while awaiting sentence for 39 offences, including 16 for car theft.

“The learned magistrate appears to have failed to appreciate the significance of 117 days of pre-sentence custody, for offending which would not otherwise have brought a detention order under almost any circumstances,” Judge Dearden said.

Read Judge Richards’ decision.

If this story has caused distress, QLS’s confidential counselling service LawCare is available for members online or 24 hours a day on 1800 177 743. Beyond Blue operates a 24-hour crisis line on 1300 22 4636 and Lifeline Australia is available on 13 11 14.

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