JUVENILE JUSTICE: Australia's tough new youth crime laws spark plea for UN intervention

[6 February 2014] -

The UN has been asked to intervene in an overhaul of juvenile crime laws in Queensland under which young offenders’ names would be published, detention would no longer be seen as a last resort and 17-year-olds would be moved into adult jails.

The laws are due to be introduced to parliament next week and have been labelled by the Queensland Law Society (QLS) as “punitive”.

The attorney general, Jarrod Bleijie, is yet to produce a draft of the legislation but has said repeat youth offenders will have their names published; the principle that detention is a last resort will be removed; juvenile criminal histories will be made available in adult courts and when a teenager in detention turns 17 and still has six months or more left of their sentence they will be moved to an adult jail.

A new offence for breaching bail will also be introduced to the Youth Justice Act which will carry a maximum one-year sentence.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services in Queensland and the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) say the laws will impact particularly harshly on Indigenous children and the two organisations have written to the UN asking it to investigate and take action if necessary.

The letter to the UN cited the Australian Bureau of Statistics saying Indigenous children made up 6% of children aged 10 to 16 in Queensland but young Indigenous people currently comprised 60% of all young people in detention in Queensland.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s director of international advocacy, Ben Schokman, said the reforms were likely to violate a number of Australia’s human rights obligations and if the UN found it did so, it could prevent the laws from being introduced.

“Children don’t belong in prison. Locking children up should only be done in the most exceptional circumstances and as a measure of absolute last resort. These reforms turn that principle on its head and will result in prison being the norm, rather than the exception,” he said.

The deputy chair of the QLS’s children’s law committee, Damian Bartholomew, said the naming of young offenders and removal of detention as a last resort were particularly concerning aspects of the proposed changes.

When asked if the laws would reduce youth crime in Queensland, he said no.

“The Queensland Law Society’s position is that a punitive approach is not going to resolve any of the issues. It’s only going to be mean we’re going to have more young people moving through the detention system and that’s going to have a harmful effect upon their rehabilitation prospects,” he said.

The QLS is opposed to taking away judicial discretion by removing the last resort principle on detention and said it would ultimately lead to a heavier burden on the justice system, as well as increasing the chances young people would reoffend.

Bartholomew said the naming of young offenders was another concerning aspect of the proposals.

“I think you’ll see young people being alienated from their community. They’ll be stigmatised. It erodes, obviously, the child’s right to privacy but more significantly it creates unwanted attention that could make it difficult for the child to find employment,” he said.

“They’re often known in the community and it deters potential employers from employing them because of an unfortunate opportunistic crime a child may have committed at the early stage of their development.”

Families would also be affected by the naming laws, Bartholomew said, as they could be ostracised and blamed for their children’s crimes.

Bartholomew said the QLS had requested a draft of the legislation but was yet to receive it.

Queensland is the only state in Australia that tries 17-year-olds as adults and the QLS is urging Bleijie not only to abandon plans to transfer them to adult prisons after their birthday, but to stop classifying them as adults at all.

Bleijie drew the ire of the children’s commissioner over the trying of 17-year-olds as adults last year when, among other concerns, the prospect of rape was raised and he responded by saying rape did not happen in jails.

"I reject that rape happens in jail. We have protections," he said. "I did actually visit all our jails. Jails are not nice places.

"They are not meant to be nice places but there are adequate staff to ensure those sorts of things aren't happening and prisoners have their own cells and so forth."

A spokesman for the attorney-general said a thorough review of the entire system was underway and a blueprint would be released in the next few months with more proposals for change.

"The number of offences, and the seriousness of those offences, has continued to climb over the years due to the former Labor government’s slap-on-the-wrist approach and it’s resulted in hardened, arrogant criminals who are in their early teens," he said. "We are talking about repeat offending, including robbery and violence."

He said an overhaul of the system had been an election promise and it was important not to look at a few things in isolation, citing the government's youth boot camps as a successful example.

"We are setting strong deterrents but also diverting young people away from detention and turning their lives around," he said.

The spokesman said the proposals had been overwhelmingly supported by more than 4,000 people who had mostly been victims of crime and the upcoming bill would go through the parliaments committee as part of the consultation process. Charges against juvenile offenders rose by 21% in 2013 with an increase of 10% in people under 17 who faced court.

Bridie Jabour

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