Transcript of Lindsay Wegener’s opening statement to the Legal Affairs and Safety Committee about the Youth Justice and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 (22nd March 2021)

While appearing today in my role as Executive Director of PeakCare, a Queensland child protection peak body, I also bring to these hearings an extensive professional background as a youth justice practitioner, senior policy-maker and program director, former manager of a youth detention centre and Director of the State’s youth detention centres. This has enabled me to develop a close familiarity with young people who encounter the youth justice system and the range of policy and practice responses to youth crime that have been used over a considerable period of time.

Throughout my career I have observed governments of all persuasions wrestle with what sometimes appears to be competing agendas of the youth justice system to:

  • firstly, work with young people and their families, to rehabilitate and reintegrate these young people into their communities, thereby diverting them from continuing on a trajectory into the adult criminal justice system – in other words, an agenda that is child-focused, and
  • secondly, to protect the community from crime through use of penalties intended to act as a deterrent to further offending, provide the victims of youth crime with a sense of justice having been served, and prevent further crime, at least for a time, by removing some young people from their communities though their incarceration in a youth detention centre – in other words, an agenda that is focused on community safety

These agendas often seem to be dealt with as two sides of a coin – a coin that is tossed in the air which upon landing, based on whatever direction the winds of public concern or media attention may be blowing at the time, determines which side of the coin becomes the prioritised policy agenda. Or the prioritised agenda at least for a while until the coin is inevitably tossed into the air again – usually in response to a crisis – and we all wait to see how it will land this time.

In an attempt to manage this dynamic of competing agendas, Governments often make use of rhetoric similar to adopting a balanced approach. This can go part way, but certainly not all the way, in reconciling these agendas and the balance can easily tip one way or the other. The greater challenge for governments is to integrate these agendas so that they are not seen as competing, but rather brought together in ways that mean the best interests of young people and the communities in which they live are both served well.

In an overarching sense, the best means of achieving the long term protection of our communities from youth crime lies with prevention and when offences do occur, use of strategies that hold young people to account in ways that are meaningful, logical and make sense to them, taking into account their maturity and their own sense of fairness and justice – strategies that do not further entrench young people on a trajectory into the adult criminal justice system, but rather assist them to obtain a sense of belonging and worth that becomes conducive to their development of pro-social behaviours.

In relation to those who have been the victims of youth crime, there are some whose predominant interest is confined to seeking retribution – the harsher the better. The vast majority however are much more interested in understanding why the offending occurred and in being re-assured that actions will be taken to reduce the likelihood of it being repeated – either in respect of them or others. Their preferences are to see consequences for the offending implemented that are reparative in nature, rather than simply punitive, and restorative in allowing young people to grow out of crime and into productive, law-abiding lives within their communities. Especially in relation to young people who have experienced childhood abuse or neglect, the disadvantages of poverty or the scourge of racism, there are few who hold a view that they suddenly transform from children deserving of our compassion and understanding into ‘kid criminals’ worthy only of our derision when they are simply acting out the impact of the trauma they have experienced and their mistrust of adults and a society that has failed them.

PeakCare is not convinced that the Bill assists in reconciling the agendas of the youth justice system.  It may be anticipated that those who react to the legislation will fall into three ’camps’ – there will be those who count the legislation as a victory, those who are not appeased and see it as insufficient in getting ‘tough on crime’, and others who are disappointed that it represents a step away from contemporary developments in youth justice policy elsewhere in the world. It is PeakCare’s view that whichever camp you belong to, no-one should be pleased or proud about this Bill. It represents an indictment on our society, the insufficient value we place on children and the inadequacy of our commitment to fully and properly address the reasons why children offend in the first place.

As referred to within PeakCare’s submission, I urge the Committee to give consideration to the recently published ‘Child First Justice: The research evidence-base’ authored by Professor Stephen Case and Ann Browning from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. I am happy to table a copy of this research report. Having only just been released in early March, it was unfortunately not accessible as a resource to inform the drafting of the Bill. It nevertheless may now be considered by the Committee as providing a blueprint for a contemporary, effective youth justice system against which the Bill can be evaluated.

Thank you for the opportunity to present PeakCare’s concerns to the Committee.

Tell us your views below, anonymously if you prefer. How do you think the coin will land? How are you hoping it will land?