Media release – Tossing a coin on youth justice

Public parliamentary hearings in Brisbane, Townsville and the Gold Coast this week continue to try to solve issues surrounding youth crime and juvenile justice. Once more, the Queensland Government flips a coin to decide the direction and fate of the small minority of young people in the youth justice system. 

Each time the coin us flipped a different direction is set depending on how the winds of public concern and media attention are blowing at the time. It determines prioritised until the coin is inevitably tossed in the air again in response to another crisis. 

We wait to see how the coin will land this time. Will a child-focused response be adopted with young people and their families to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into communities diverting them from the adult criminal justice system? 

Or will tough penalties be adopted to try and deter further offending, provide the victims with a sense of justice and remove some young people, for a time at least, from communities though incarceration? 

In an attempt to manage competing agendas, governments use rhetoric of a balanced approach. However, the balance can easily tip one way or the other. The greater challenge is to integrate these agendas so they are not competing but working together in the best interests of young people, their families and communities. 

The best way to provide long term protection from youth crime lies with prevention. And, when offences do occur, using strategies that hold young people to account in ways that are meaningful, logical and make sense to them. 

Strategies are needed that don’t further entrench young people on a trajectory to the adult criminal justice system but helps them obtain a sense of belonging and worth that develops pro-social behaviours. 

Many victims of youth crime seek retribution – the harsher the better. The vast majority, however, are much more interested in understanding why the offending occurred and being assured actions are taken to reduce it happening again. 

They prefer to see consequences implemented that are reparative rather than simply punitive, and restorative to allow young people to grow out of crime into productive, law-abiding lives in their communities. 

Few people hold the view that young people who have experienced childhood abuse, neglect or poverty suddenly transform from children deserving compassion and understanding into ‘kid criminals’ worthy only of our derision. 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. 

Child safety advocates and workers are not convinced that proposed legislation will reconcile opposing agendas of the youth justice system.  Those reacting to the current bill fall into three camps. There who count the legislation as a victory, those 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. 

Whichever camp someone belongs to, no-one should be pleased or proud about the proposed Youth Justice and Other Legislation Amendment 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. 

 Lindsay Wegener is Executive Director of child protection peak body PeakCare, a former manager of a youth detention centre and former Director of the Queensland youth detention centres. 

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