On 17th September, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Yvette D’Ath announced a time-framed plan for the long-awaited and welcomed integration of 17-year-olds previously dealt with by the adult criminal justice system into the youth system. A staged transition will start in November leading up to the commencement of the Youth Justice and Other Legislation (Inclusion of 17-year-old Persons) Amendment Act on 12th February 2018. Also announced were a number of other initiatives including the establishment of ‘supervised bail accommodation services’ in nine locations to progressively come on line starting in December; new ‘frontline’ staff for courts, community and youth detention centres; more resources for courts, including two more magistrates, to improve the timeliness of court processes; and increased funding for Legal Aid Queensland and the provision of after-hours legal services for young people.

These initiatives are targeted, in particular, at reducing the alarming proportion of young people in Queensland youth detention centres who are on remand rather than having been sentenced to a period in custody. Currently, around 80% of young people are on remand in custody in Queensland compared with the nationwide average of only 57%.

PeakCare commends the Queensland Government for being, as stated by Mrs D’Ath, “not afraid of tackling difficult issues”.  The youth justice system is complex. It is a system often caught between meeting the seemingly conflicting interests of the community to be protected from crime and the desire to ‘rehabilitate’ young people who have committed offences. PeakCare’s view is that there should be no conflict. The quite legitimate needs of the community to be protected from crime are always best met when strategies are employed that successfully divert young people from unwarranted or unnecessarily prolonged involvement with the criminal justice system while also providing them with the support and services they need to reduce their recidivism and restore meaningful connections with their communities. It’s here where common ground can be found and the interests of the community and individual young people can be reconciled.

The arguments for restorative youth justice approaches are made even more compelling when full consideration is given to the reality of many young people’s lives. Most who encounter the youth justice system have been ‘victims’ of offences far greater and more prolific than any they themselves have committed. This complexity is compounded by the historic propensity for children and young people to be more harshly treated than adults in their encounters with the criminal justice system. This appears, at least in part, to be continuing today despite legislated requirements for their immaturity and youth to be taken into account. Clearly, the astoundingly high number of young people being held in custody due to their ‘homelessness’ – a condition over which they, as children, often have little control – serves as evidence of that. The confusion that often besets the system in separating ‘justice’ from ‘welfare’ responses that the Youth Justice Act sought to clarify appears to have not yet been fully resolved.

Historically, the youth justice system has also been prone to a dynamic of grabbing at solutions and ‘feels good’ policy and program responses that may be well-intended, but which can ‘backfire’ and have unintended consequences despite the ‘good intentions’. It is a system that demands to be driven by research and a clear evidence-base, in preference to anecdotes and newspaper headlines. In an environment where youth justice matters often become subject to a high level of media and public scrutiny, youth justice policy-makers, managers and practitioners often require a good dollop of courage in standing up for best practice.

As a child protection peak body, PeakCare has an understandably strong interest in the intersection of the child protection and youth justice systems. Moreover, our charter extends to having an interest in the safety and wellbeing of all Queensland children and young people and the extent to which their safety and wellbeing is impacted by their dealings with a full range of systems – child protection, youth justice, health, education and so on. PeakCare’s Executive Director, Lindsay Wegener, is extremely pleased to have recently received and accepted an invitation from the Department of Justice and Attorney-General to serve on a youth justice stakeholder advisory group. As a member of this group, PeakCare looks forward to making a constructive contribution to the planning and implementation of the newly announced and future youth justice reforms.

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