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Youth justice reforms - with Andrew Peel

One of Townsville’s leading criminal lawyers and Purcell Taylor Lawyers director Andrew Peel explains what youth justice is and what the latest reforms mean for young people and the community.

Posted: March 21, 2023

Tackling spiralling youth crime is a hot topic right now and proving to be a political hot potato.

Since 2017, the strategy adopted by the Government has been contained in a document entitled “Working together changing the story” setting out the four pillars of a plan to deal with youth crime: Intervene early; Keep children out of court; Keep children out of custody; and Reduce re-offending.

However, the recent and constant media attention combined with negative public sentiment has triggered the Queensland Government and Opposition to recently announce their strategies to curb youth crime.  It can be loosely described as “Toughening the Laws”.

So, what are the issues being addressed?  And what are the proposed solutions?

Youth justice – What is it?

It is helpful to clarify exactly what youth justice is…

We will begin with the easy part:  a youth is typically someone who is under 18 at the time of a crime or at the time of being dealt with by the Courts or Police. So, what is justice?   Well, in theory it is a simple system which has been created to allow Courts to deal with crime. 

In practice though, youth justice is far more complex.  It is a system which seeks to consider all relevant people and circumstances involved in a crime (victims, families, and perpetrators) to determine an appropriate outcome which is fair. 

Necessarily, it MUST balance opposing interests in determining an outcome.  This concept is perhaps why it rarely satisfies the interests of all those affected.  When dealing with young people it is even more complex.

At the heart of youth justice is the very difficult task of balancing the need to punish youthful offenders against the needs of rehabilitation to reduce the risks of reoffending and recidivism in the future.

alancing punishment with rehabilitation is one of the resounding issues

Balancing punishment with rehabilitation is one of the resounding issues

Youth justice – what are the current issues?

Queensland, like most of the Country is dealing with an increase in serious crime being perpetrated by younger offenders.  

Anecdotally, we hear of our detention centres being full as well as youths spending weeks on end at Watchhouses.  Repeat offenders are stealing cars and committing offences whilst on bail and this is a daily occurrence.  The community is outraged, the Police feel they’re losing a never-ending battle against crime, the politicians are blaming each other before pointing their fingers at the Courts.

But what are the solutions?

The current government has announced a strategy involving three key points:

  • Targeting repeat offenders
  • Tackling complex issues of youth crime
  • Supporting community safety

The Opposition’s plan also has three key features:

  • Making breach of bail an offence
  • New early intervention methods
  • Removing the principle that imprisonment should be a sentencing option of last resort.

A bipartisan approach is now adopted in respect of making breach of bail an offence.  A breach of bail offence usually refers to a child not abiding to the conditions of bail placed on a young person.  Bail conditions are imposed to reduce the risk of reoffending or failing to appear in Court.

The most common condition broken is a curfew requiring children to be home at night.   

Although it is not currently an offence to breach these conditions, there are still consequences for children who do.   Any breach of the conditions usually results in a further review by the Courts of whether a child should be on bail.  Of course, reoffending on bail will also cause this review to occur and it is likely that any further offences are going to be viewed more seriously than a simple breach of a bail condition.

The impact of reintroducing this law is difficult to predict.  It seems obvious that children will be charged with the additional offence of breaching bail now, but will it act as a deterrent?  It will have the immediate impact of a spike in the statistics for youth crime as it will be another charge added to the list of offending young people are often dealt with for.

Youth justice reforms – the outcomes?

It is difficult to predict the outcomes of any of the measures being suggested to deal with the youth crime issue.  Balancing the interests of all those involved is a difficult task. 

Imprisonment and the toughening of laws is the current plan but is imprisonment the key to reducing youth crime ?  It will certainly add to the issue of full detention centres which will need to be addressed.

The real question remains: will it work?