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Stop this mad race to the bottom on youth justice

By Margaret McMurdo, Courier Mail, 28 August 2023

In a rare demonstration of bipartisanship, both Queensland’s Premier and its leader of the opposition rightly united in their praise of a man of goodness and integrity at the state funeral for former premier of Queensland, the Hon Mike Ahern AO.

Mike was remembered as a cherished husband, father and grandfather, a dedicated member for Landsborough, cabinet minister, and the Premier who famously undertook to implement the long overdue Fitzgerald reforms ‘lock stock and barrel’, even though this was unpopular with many in his party and ultimately led to him losing party leadership and the premiership. What a better place Queensland would have been had Ahern been Premier earlier in Queensland’s history. 

In the spirit of that bipartisanship, good governance, Ahern’s legacy of integrity, and for the sake of victims and young offenders, I call on both sides of politics in Queensland to end the race to the bottom on youth justice issues and instead jointly adopt policies that are known to work.

Our hearts go out to victims of crime. They deserve support and an effective voice  in the criminal justice process, including youth justice. The promised victims of crime commissioner is a welcome and much needed start.

For many years those working with our troubled youth have advised that locking up young people does not rehabilitate them. Statistics have long shown shocking recidivism rates for those placed in youth detention. Since at least 2019, even hard-headed economic rationalists in Queensland and Federal productivity commission reports have warned of the economic and social folly of building more child prisons - they are expensive and demonstrably ineffective in keeping communities safe.

As the recent reports of former police commissioner Bob Atkinson AO show, prevention, early intervention and rehabilitation in the community is the most effective (and economical) way to reduce youth crime.

Queensland population growth and the inclusion of 17 year-olds in the youth justice system may have made a modest contribution to the state’s alarming growth in youth detention numbers. But the major cause has been the Queensland Government’s response to pressure from the opposition, the media and the public to introduce new laws – ‘ the toughest in the nation’.  And now we have suspended our Human Rights Act and our youth justice principles to allow Queensland’s most vulnerable and damaged children to be kept in places built for short term adult prisoner accommodation.

There are children who have committed such serious offences that they must be detained in the interests of community safety. But many children currently adding to the numbers in youth detention are best rehabilitated and supervised in the community. There is no need to abandon long established youth justice principles and lock them up in watchhouses.

Queensland’s youth detention centres operate at an astonishing 95.5% capacity . The Australian average is 57.7%. Even the Northern Territory with its unhappy youth justice history and the next highest youth detention operating capacity, is only at 57.8%. And Tasmania has recently announced the closure of its youth detention centre to be replaced with a therapeutic model of care. 

Youth offending is a complex  issue with no quick fixes. Sound youth justice policy takes time to work and to be assessed. There are many dedicated Queensland staff and managers working hard and creatively to implement the Atkinson reports and assist vulnerable young offenders and their families. They do a wonderful, often thankless job, made even more difficult by constant, sometimes ill-informed criticism.

Victims will be pleased to know that lighter caseloads allowing for intensive case management of high risk recidivist youth offenders are beginning to show positive outcomes, re-engaging them with school, preparing them for work and addressing their individual high needs.  And collaborative multi-agency response panels are bringing together those working in youth justice, police, housing, child safety , health, education, First Nations and disability to successfully rehabilitate these recidivist high needs young offenders and build safer communities.

For the sake of our victims, our troubled young people and all Queensland taxpayers, I implore the Premier and the leader of the opposition to abandon the madness of the current law and order youth justice auction. Instead, the youth justice minister and her opposition counterpart should reach agreement on the implementation  of youth justice policies that truly make our Queensland communities safer.


*Hon Margaret McMurdo is a former President, Court of Appeal, Supreme court of Queensland, a former Childrens Court judge and a Queensland patron of the Justice Reform Initiative.

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