The transition of 17 year-old young people to the youth justice system is good news for everyone – young people themselves, their parents and families, those who have been the victims of youth crime and the community at large.

The Queensland public absolutely has a right to feel protected from crime and there is no better long term protection from crime than diverting children from becoming involved with the adult criminal justice system. Conversely, there is almost no better way of guaranteeing that seventeen year-olds will continue on a pathway towards an adult criminal career than having Police and courts deal with them as adults, especially if this ends up with them spending time in an adult jail. These changes put a stop to that and allow responses to be put in place for seventeen year-olds that are much more age-appropriate and designed to re-connect them with their families, their communities and culture. These are the best, evidence-based ways of reducing recidivism.

It is completely understandable, of course, that members of the community who have been the victims of offences committed by young people want them to be caught and held accountable for their behaviour. There is no question about that, and young people will continue to be held to account for their behaviour in accordance with youth justice laws.

The vast majority of people who have been the victims of youth crime however are seeking re-assurance that others will not experience what they themselves have been through. Given the choice between having a punishment inflicted on a child that increases the likelihood of them graduating to a lifetime involvement in crime and programs that successfully divert children from further offending, they will elect the latter.

It’s also important to remember who the young people are who encounter the criminal justice system. First and foremost, we must not forget that most 17 year-olds are still at school. In respect of many of these young people, their involvement in crime is simply a matter of succumbing to peer pressure, bravado or the foolhardiness of youth. I’m sure that there are many parents of 17 year-olds now breathing a huge sigh of relief about it being no longer possible for their school-aged children to find themselves, due to some stupid mistake, being prosecuted as an adult and potentially sent to an adult prison on remand or sentence.

In relation to other young people, the reasons for their involvement in offending behaviours are much more complex and insidious. Sadly, these reasons concern young people who have often had far greater crimes committed against them than any that they themselves have (or have allegedly) committed. Most have been or are still involved with the child protection system. Whether it is trauma that they have experienced as a result of abuse or exploitation by adults in positions of trust, or the impact of bullying or racial vilification, poverty or homelessness, this trauma does not simply disappear from their lives. It unleashes itself in ways that are sometimes self-directed resulting in these children tragically harming themselves or it can be expressed as a rage that they direct towards others through anti-social behaviour and offending. To truly understand and deal with youth crime, this is what we must be focussed on – how best to assist these children recover and heal from the trauma inflicted upon them during their vulnerable childhood years. The changes to youth justice laws give us increased scope to establish and maintain this focus.

In jobs I have previously held as a manager of a youth detention centre and subsequently as a director of the State’s youth detention centres, it was not at all uncommon for me to receive phone calls from prison managers desperately seeking a way that would legally permit the transfer of a vulnerable 17 year-old child struggling to survive in an adult prison environment to a youth detention centre. It wasn’t possible.

Soon no-one will need to make or receive those phone calls – at least not in respect of 17 year-old children. Hallelujah!

Tell us what you have to say about the transition of 17 year-old young people to the youth justice system by entering a comment below…

Lindsay Wegener

Executive Director, PeakCare