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Mick Palmer: We need to find ways to keep our kids out of prison

By Mick Palmer AO, The Courier Mail, 30 May 2023

A report released this week by the Justice Reform Initiative found Queensland is churning people through an ineffective justice system propped up by $1bn annually on prison and detention facilities.

Despite these findings though, it is encouraging that the Queensland parliament in recent times has invested in proven alternatives to prison on mounting evidence showing their efficacy in reducing crime. It is imperative that this journey continue.

There is an opportunity for the Palaszczuk government to do what successive governments have failed to do, and adopt a smarter approach to justice reform

The pressure on the government to be tough on crime, particularly youth crime, is understood in the face of the much-publicised higher end of youth violence and related crime currently occurring in centres across the state. 

But it is also important to understand that almost all criminal activity begins with petty crime and escalates over time into more serious crime. 

Very few young people begin their criminal career by committing a violent home invasion or robbery. 

With genuine government engagement in, and support for, early intervention and rehabilitation options, much of the more serious and frightening behaviour can be prevented.

This journey will require courage in the face of wide community expectations for tougher penalties for violent crime, and it is not suggested that the government apply leniency to those who commit the most serious and violent crimes. 

But it must be recognised that the only way to reduce high-end crime figures and the violent behaviours of some youths is through smarter, earlier interventions which provide genuine options and pathways other than crime for young people at the earliest possible stage of their criminal pursuits. 

To be effective, government must invest as much in addressing the causes as it does the symptoms.

For example, there is strong evidence showing interventions such as residential drug treatment programs can reduce future criminal offending among young people.

Research examining the impact of the Ted Noffs Foundation’s residential drug and alcohol treatment service for more than 3000 adolescents with drug and crime-related issues found those with a history of early and repeat offending benefited the most. 

Young people with alcohol and other drug dependency have often lived lives involving multiple disadvantages including poverty, trauma, interrupted schooling, unstable, often violent, living arrangements, mental illness and disability.

Programs to address these complex intersecting issues, including building their life skills and community connections, can have a major impact.

The move to reform drug laws and expand access to diversionary programs for drug possession is one such instance, but regressive legislative choices can undermine this progress by pumping far more into prison expansions. 

Our justice system’s current treatment of young people makes them only more likely to reoffend.

It puts them on a fast-track to encounters with the adult prison system, trapping them in a cycle which the evidence shows is incredibly difficult to break out of without intervention, particularly for those coming from – and returning to – disadvantage.

The Queensland government’s decision to build a new youth detention facility in Woodford to neighbour the adult prison could be considered symbolic of this cycle of incarceration. 

In all jurisdictions, the major problem has been that there are insufficient alternatives that magistrates and judges can turn to.

All the evidence shows that prison and detention facilities are failing, but without viable options their court rooms become a revolving door. 

It is entirely possible to address the drivers of incarceration – but we must first acknowledge jailing is failing and then commit to significantly resourcing genuine proven alternatives.

These community programs already exist in Queensland.

For example, the Ted Noffs Foundation’s Street University program and the YFS’s Revolve program in Logan work to divert young people away from the justice system through intensive case management, or outreach and drug and alcohol support. 

They achieve dramatic reductions in offending and recidivism while improving wellbeing but too often these programs are at capacity, relying on community goodwill or piecemeal funding to achieve this disproportionate success. 

Faced with a soaring prison population, the state government cannot afford to ignore the evidence. 

Despite community and media pressure, it is critical that Queensland shows political bravery, moves away from the simplistic “tough-on-crime” policy failure of over-incarceration and genuinely commit to investing in multifaceted justice and social policies that attack the problems from both ends, are evidence-based and shown to reduce offending.

We cannot imprison our way to a safer Queensland. 

The state government has put its toe in the water of reform – now it’s time to take the plunge and broaden and strengthen its commitment to a smarter approach. 

Mick Palmer AO is a former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police and a patron of the Justice Reform Initiative

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