By Mick Palmer AO APM, Courier Mail, 24 March 2021
While opinions are sharply divided about how to tackle youth crime in Queensland, I believe we would all agree that the sooner we intervene to help these kids, the better.
Assistant Commissioner Cheryl Scanlon, who is charged with leading the state’s Youth Justice Taskforce, may have had this in mind when she said recently that it was “good news” when a young person came into contact with the criminal justice system - “they’ve come into the system then go out the other side and they go on to live really productive lives.”
Sadly this is often the exception, as many of the young people who come into the system in fact become deeply entrenched in it.
The first contact often becomes a passport to a lifetime of reoffending and other problems. As the Assistant Commissioner correctly suggests, however, it should be an exit point from criminal justice into effective social services interventions.
Two years ago, the Queensland government released a report of its strategy to prevent and respond to youth crime better.
The foreword co-signed by Anastacia Palaszczuk declared that “for too long, governments have relied on custodial approaches to address young offending”, that this was largely ineffective and it was “time to change the story”.
While not yet implemented, this plan to ‘change the story’ was, and remains, absolutely on the money. Reducing youth offending and remand levels by tackling the causes of youth crime, working with all agencies and sectors to support youth, families and communities, and engaging them as part of the solution offers enormous positive benefits.
It is understandable that government, reflecting the electorate’s view, would seek to enforce severe punishment against the most serious youth offenders, particularly in response to such tragedies as we have recently seen.
But, as the Premier said, this cannot work in isolation.
To make a lasting and effective difference, a broader suite of initiatives including strong engagement, support, treatment and rehabilitation programs, which genuinely address underlying causes of crime and operate to reduce youth criminality and incarceration levels, are needed.
The numbers show there are actually fewer young people offending, but within that group of youth offenders, there has been a growth of repeat youth offenders. However evidence shows the number of serious youth offenders remains very low. Most youth crime is committed by essentially decent young men and women, acting badly. We must separate the behaviour from the person.
It is well-established that each contact with the justice system significantly increases the risk of further contact. For young people, this creates a revolving door of re-offending and incarceration which too often traps them well into adulthood.
The children who are drawn into criminal offending overwhelmingly come from circumstances of neglect, trauma, violence, poverty and financial insecurity – these are key drivers of crime.
The evidence shows that Queensland already locks up children at a rate above the national average. Two-thirds of young Queenslanders who were released from a supervised sentence in 2017-18 returned within one year – the highest rate in the country.
As the government itself noted two years ago, there has to be a better way. Simply punishing people who are used to being punished, and expect nothing more, is a proven recipe for failure.
To deter young people from criminal behaviour, we must ensure they are engaging with people who can offer help, hope, guidance, support and treatment. That they have opportunity for meaningful activities which encourage a sense of community, belonging and self-worth. That we develop initiatives which allow young people to feel valued and able to identify alternatives to substance abuse, stealing cars and reckless behaviour.
Queensland Police are wonderfully placed, if given the opportunity, to play a positive role in any such response. Whilst not widely understood, police spend more time and resources helping young people than they do arresting or punishing them. And they are good at it as shown by the Logan-based police/Ted Noffs Foundation strategy, where police and professional youth workers have combined to engage would-be offenders before they offend, with impressive success.
Evidence and desired outcomes must drive our strategies. If they do, success will take care of itself.
The clear need for reform has driven the formation of the Justice Reform Initiative, a new multi-partisan group advocating for change in our criminal justice system. This alliance, including many who have witnessed how the overreliance on prison leads to worse outcomes for society, wants to work with government for a better system.
We must be prepared to judge the success of our initiatives by the outcomes achieved. Jailing is failing all of us, genuine youth engagement almost certainly will not.
Mick Palmer AO, APM is a former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police and a patron of the Justice Reform Initiative.