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Big, fat ticks for youth justice changes (but some question marks remain)

by PeakCare Qld on 9th September 2016

Home -> Articles -> 2016 -> September -> Big, fat ticks for youth justice changes (but some question marks remain)

PeakCare applauded the Palaszczuk Government’s recent announcement that legislation would be introduced into Parliament next week to end the practice of treating 17-year olds as adults in Queensland’s justice system. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk stated that the aim will be to have all 17-year olds removed from adult prisons within 12 months.

PeakCare commends and congratulates the many youth advocacy groups, academics and individuals who have doggedly campaigned for this change over many years. Our hats go off to you! Thank you also to the PeakCare Members and Supporters who signed the recently released petition and distributed PeakCare’s own flyer that was produced in support of this campaign.

Along with the decisions made about 17-year olds, the Government also released the terms of reference for an independent review into the practices, operation and oversight of Queensland’s youth detention centres. This review will be led by Professor Megan Davis and Ms Kathryn McMillan QC.

Without wishing to diminish in any way how pleased we are with the landmark decisions made by the Government, there are some question marks that remain for PeakCare.

When the Government made its very laudable announcement, the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice quite correctly pointed out that one of the important issues for the Government to consider in moving 17-year olds into the youth justice system is the safety of younger children already in the system. Mrs D’Ath said, “Our two youth detention centres in Brisbane and Townsville house males and females, some as young as ten”. The Government’s concerns about the safety and well-being of all children who will be impacted by this decision are admirable, but surely they beg the question, “What are children as young as 10 doing in a youth detention centre in the first place?”

As may have been expected given the very short time frame for conducting the independent review, the terms of reference are quite focussed and limited to the operations of the Cleveland and Brisbane Youth Detention Centres in respect of certain matters. It should not be regarded as a review of Queensland’s youth justice system, of which youth detention centres are only a part.

It is completely understandable that the Government is seeking to act quickly and decisively in relation to dealing with the allegations of maltreatment of young people made by former youth detention centre staff and formerly-detained young people. In order to do so and ensure that findings of the review can be reported on by the due date of 30th November 2016, it means that the scope of the review must be focussed and contained.

The down-side to this is that it limits opportunity for a full and comprehensive independent examination of the youth justice system ‘as a whole’. There are a plethora of complex issues warranting examination – the age at which children can be assessed as ‘criminally responsible’ and the application of the doli incapax principle that allows children as young as 10 to be held, on remand or sentence, in a youth detention centre; the lengthy periods of detaining Queensland children on remand (the longest in the country); and the appalling over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people within the youth justice system.

Beyond these obvious issues, there are also those concerning the intersection that the youth justice system has with other systems such as education, health and mental health, and child protection. Far too often, the youth justice system (youth detention centres in particular) is left to ‘pick up the pieces’ when these other systems could and should have been exercising their roles more effectively. Irrespective of whether or not the independent review of youth detention centres will have sufficient scope to address some of these issues, the current focus on youth justice will hopefully serve as a catalyst for government and non-government policy makers and providers of child protection services to strive towards achieving a better understanding and management of the nexus between child protection and youth justice.

As it currently stands, there are far too many children and young people involved with the child protection system whose lives are on a ‘fast-track’ trajectory into the youth justice and adult criminal justice systems. Our responsibilities, I think, are very clearly two-fold – firstly, we must ensure that there is nothing we are doing in the name of child protection that is contributing to children and young people being placed on this trajectory; and secondly, in relation to those children and young people whose lives already appear to be on this trajectory, we must increase our commitment, knowledge and skills in being able to assist them in turning this around.

PeakCare would like to hear your views. Enter a comment below or email Lindsay Wegener

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