Queensland has no ‘youth crime crisis’, with less than one percent of the state’s 535,000 children aged 10-17 being dealt with by the youth justice system each year, according to an independent youth support agency.
Brisbane-based Youth Advocacy Centre (YAC) recently released its 2022 ‘Orange Paper 3’ in support of its submission to a parliamentary committee considering law reforms to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 10 to 14.
YAC Chief Executive Katie Acheson and Policy and Systemic Reform Officer Janet McKeon joined a myriad of community stakeholders – including Queensland Law Society – to appear at last week’s public hearing before the parliamentary Community Support and Services Committee in support of proposed changes to the Criminal Law (Raising the Age of Responsibility) Amendment Bill 2021.
The pair – appearing on behalf of YAC – also received support from the centre’s veteran lawyer, Damien Bartholomew, who appeared separately in his additional capacity as QLS Children’s Law Committee Chair alongside Society President Kara Thomson.
Currently, the MACR is 10 across all Australian jurisdictions.
“Contrary to media reports, there is no youth offending crisis,” the YAC’s Orange Paper says. “Children’s offending is predominantly property-related and opportunistic.
“In 2019–20, 8% of offences proven to have been committed by children were violence related, 6% drug related, and 0.4% involved sexual offences
“The number of youth offenders has been decreasing for some years in Queensland, in Australia and in countries such as the UK and Canada.
“There are around 535,000 10-17 year olds in Queensland, only 0.9% of whom appear in court in a given year. Around 10% of child offenders (about 500 a year) commit around 45% of the offences committed by all youth offenders.”
The paper also identifies that a small group of recidivist youth offenders responsible for the majority of crimes and repeatedly consigned to stints in youth detention were likely to have faced or continue to face extreme challenges in their personal lives.
The paper said analysis of a small group of young people who continually offended and were being housed in the state’s three youth detention centres (two in Brisbane and one in Townsville) on “a given day in 2019” showed:
- 60% had experienced or been impacted by domestic and family violence
- 55% were disengaged from education, training, or employment
- 46% had a mental health and/or behavioural disorder (diagnosed or suspected)
- 38% had used ice or other methamphetamines
- 30% had at least one parent who spent time in adult custody
- 29% were in unstable and/or unsuitable accommodation
- 12% had a disability (assessed or suspected).
“Children under 14 in the justice system are more likely to be experiencing underlying trauma, have an undiagnosed disability, and come from a low socio-economic background,” the Orange Paper says.
“The younger a child commences in the youth justice system, the more likely they are to remain in it, the more often they are in detention, and the more likely they are to return.
“Some cohorts of children are overrepresented in the justice system, particularly Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children, but also other disadvantaged groups such as children in contact with the child protection system.”
YAC – which provides legal services, youth and family support assistance and services to at-risk young people aged 10 to 18 years likely caught up in the youth justice system – said it wanted an evidence-based response to raising MCAR, supported across the Parliament, which did not continue to politicise youth justice and our children.
“A significant challenge is the mythology which surrounds youth justice – ‘youth offending is out of control’ and ‘they only get a slap on the wrist’ being two of the most common statements,” YAC says.
“We have noted previously that the number of youth offenders has been declining and that there is only a very small group of ongoing offenders.
“We also know what puts them at greater risk of getting into trouble. We know where the ‘hot spots’ are for offenders and offending and, therefore, where to focus the most effective responses.
“However, youth justice has become highly politicised. The lack of general understanding of the facts of youth offending and the youth justice system feeds a punitive response, which pressures politicians and policy makers.
“There is evidence that the community is supportive of initiatives such as early intervention and diversion, education/employment programs, better support to children who have been abused or neglected, and treatment for drug addiction in order to turn children’s lives around.
“Clearly, the community needs to be brought on board with any proposal to raise MACR.
“YAC believes that it can be if the public is properly informed about child offenders, child offending and effective responses.”
On 15 September 2021, MP Michael Berkman introduced the Bill into the Queensland Parliament.
The objective of the Bill is to ensure children under 14 years of age are not incarcerated or otherwise punished under the criminal legal system, consistent with current medical understanding of child development and contemporary human rights standards.
The Bill aims to achieve this by raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Queensland from 10 to 14 years old and transferring any children under 14 years old out of custody. The Bill also aims to negate the consequences of prior offending by children while under the age of 14, including, for example, the creation of records in relation to such offending.
The committee’s report and its recommendations on the proposed Bill are due to be delivered by 15 March.
Read the YAC Orange Paper 3 – 2022.