Transcript of PeakCare media statement released in response to Working Together: Changing the Story Youth Justice Strategy 2019-2023

Very few are not sold on the message that prevention is better than cure when it comes to our health. Stop smoking, exercise regularly, eat the right foods are widely, although sometimes begrudgingly, accepted strategies to reduce the likelihood of heart disease, cancer and a host of other problems. If these diseases do occur, then early detection becomes our preferred approach so we can nip them in the bud when the prospect of a cure is high before resorting to invasive treatments when the likelihood of a good outcome is often sadly reduced.

It’s a sensible approach and few disagree with it. The Government’s strategy for dealing with youth crime, Working Together Changing the Story, adopts the same sensible approach with measures to prevent youth crime and early detection of children who are at risk that prompts the delivery of services to address the underlying reasons for their offending. The strategy is backed by evidence that this is what works best and far better than drawing children into a youth justice system including especially, their incarceration in youth detention, which increases the likelihood of them growing up and into a lifetime of crime.

Given that it is the same sensible approach to that used in promoting good heath, why is it so difficult to obtain the same unanimous public endorsement? Perhaps it is because the approach must also cater for youth crime victims, and within media commentary there is a tendency to pit the interests of children against those of their victims. The sides are drawn – it’s victims versus offenders. One or the other side is portrayed as the winner and the other the loser with youth justice strategies critiqued as either too ‘tough’ on offenders and pandering to victims or ‘soft’ on offenders and dismissive of victims.

The truth is that the public has every right to feel confident that all that can be done is being done to protect communities from crime. It’s also true that the best protection for communities comes from youth justice strategies that refuse to breed children for future careers as adult criminals. It is this, in fact, that communities should fear the most.

In addition to preventing youth crime, the Government’s strategy incorporates ‘restorative justice conferences’ that bring children face to face with the victims of their offences. This is a strategy that is not only effective in diverting children from further offending, but one which also elicits high levels of satisfaction from youth crime victims.

While victims want children to be held accountable for their offences, their predominant interest is in obtaining assurance that others will not experience what they have been through. Given the choice between having a punishment inflicted that increases the likelihood of a child being involved in further offending and programs that successfully rehabilitate children, they will invariably select the latter. This approach is one which blows apart the notion that the interests of children and the victims of their offences invariably conflict. It is a strategy that cleverly brings together and reconciles the best interests of both parties.

Clinging to arguments that pit ‘offenders’ against ‘victims’ also ignores the flawed way in which these labels are applied. The truth is that most children who encounter youth justice are the victims of crimes committed against them that are usually far greater than any offences they themselves have committed.

For some children, their involvement in crime is simply a matter of peer pressure and foolhardiness that they will grow out of. For others, the reasons are more insidious and relate to childhoods blemished by trauma. Whether it is trauma resulting from abuse, exploitation by adults, bullying or racism, this trauma does not simply disappear. These children do not suddenly transform from being ‘victims’ who are worthy of our compassion to ‘offenders’ who deserve nothing other than our vilification. Their trauma can unleash itself in ways that are self-directed with these children tragically harming themselves or it can be expressed as a rage that they direct towards others through anti-social behaviour. To truly deal with youth crime, this is what we must focus on – how best to assist these children recover from trauma endured during their vulnerable childhood years.

There will be some, no doubt, who trot out catch-cries of “old enough to do the crime, old enough to do the time” and similar tired slogans, but the majority of Queenslanders no longer accept these platitudes. The public wants answers to youth crime, but knows better than to think they can be found in building more and more expensive youth detention centres when taxpayer dollars are far more usefully spent on education, mental health services, disability support services and family support programs. The public expects nothing less than actions that are proven to work and this is what the Government is taking major steps towards delivering with the Working Together Changing the Story Strategy.