In 2012 the Newman Government introduced changes to the youth justice system on the grounds that Queensland has been caught in the grip of a youth crime wave, and that young offenders were getting away with a ‘slap on the wrist’. The changes to the Youth Justice Act 1992 include:
- transferring young people to an adult prison once they turn 17 (if they have six months or more of a custodial sentence to serve);
- allowing young offenders to be identified by name;
- removing the principle of detention as a last resort; and
- introducing youth boot camps, including mandatory camps for repeat vehicle offenders in Townsville.
Justice Michael Shanahan, President of the Qld Children’s Court, noted ‘Several of these changes cause me grave concern’, in his introduction to the last Annual Report of the Queensland Children’s Court. A particular concern is that Queensland treats 17-year-olds as adults and automatically transfers them to adult prison if they have more than six months on their sentence remaining. This not only adds to an already over-burdened and growing adult prison population, but contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which stipulates 18 as the minimum age of adult imprisonment.
There has been no youth crime wave. The Annual Report of the Queensland Children’s Court for 2013-14 shows that there has been a steady decline in the number of young people appearing before the courts over the last decade (with a small increase of 3.1% during 2014 after the reforms). This increase is likely the consequence of fewer police cautions and the abolition of court-ordered youth justice conferencing. There was an increase of 10.1% of charges dealt with by the Children’s Court, and a corresponding 10.1% decrease in police referrals to Youth Justice Conferencing from the previous year (End Note 1). Most of the offences committed by young people in Queensland are non-violent.
The most common charge for which young people were before the Children’s Court during 2013-14 was theft, (including motor vehicle theft). While youth crime has been in decline for a decade, the number of young people in detention has increased 34% over the last five years. Around two-thirds of those in detention are Indigenous. Three-quarters of young people in detention in QLD are remandees, that is young people who have not even been convicted of an offence (End note 2). Detention has been found to be criminogenic – in other words, it causes crime. Young detainees are separated from their families and communities, form criminal connections in detention and learn to be better criminals.
Queensland has the highest proportion of youth detainees on remand, at 72 percent (AIHW 2013; Shanahan 2014). Further, Queensland is the only jurisdiction that has recently experienced a substantial increase in the number and rate of young people on custodial remand (AIHW 2013). The rate of Indigenous over-representation among young people on remand has also recently increased in Queensland (and Western Australia) (AIHW 2013). In summary, while most other jurisdictions are experiencing decreases in the use of custodial remand for young people, the opposite has occurred in Queensland.
- Fewer young people are being cautioned, as noted by Justice Shanahan, President of the Qld Children’s Court. ‘In 2013-14 the number of cautions administered by Queensland Police decreased by 5.8%. This follows a decrease of 13.3% in 2012-13 and a decrease of 9.1% in 2011-12.’
- The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which monitors juveniles in detention said in its most recent report: ‘The number of young people in detention on an average night in Queensland increased over the 4-year period, from 136 in the June quarter 2010 to 191 in the June quarter 2014 (AIHW 2014, Figure 5.7; Table 5.2).