UQ debate raises questions about Queensland Government's youth justice proposals

11 Dec 2013

Organisers of a panel discussion on youth justice and detention wanted to prompt community debate over Queensland Government proposals to impose harsher sentencing on young offenders. 

The youth justice forum hosted by The University of Queensland Law School and Caxton Legal Centre was broadcast on the ABC Radio National ‘Big Ideas’ show on Monday 28 October.

Over 150 people attended the Youth Justice and Detention as a Last Resort discussion held at the Queen Elizabeth II Court Complex in Brisbane on 24 October.

Professor Heather Douglas, a criminal law expert at UQ’s TC Beirne School of Law, says the event aimed to highlight the potential consequences of the Government’s criminal law reform proposals under the ‘Safer Streets Crime Action Plan.’

“The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the detention of a child should be used as a last resort,” Professor Douglas said.

“However, this principle is under threat in Queensland and lawmakers should be considering how to avoid detention through use of a greater range of early interventions and sentencing options to deal with young offenders.”

“By bringing together experts with considerable experience in the realm of youth justice our aim is to contribute some much needed evidence to influence this debate in the hope of persuading lawmakers to reconsider their dramatic rollback of accepted legal principle in deciding these matters.”

“Detention is a last resort when children are sentenced in all Australian states and territories.  It should stay that way.”

Research suggests that children should be treated differently to adults as detaining and removing them from their families, educational institutions and friendship groups marginalises them from their communities and may reduce their chances of rehabilitation.

The youth justice forum panel featured Dr Stephen Stathis, Clinical Director, Child and Youth Mental Health Service at the Royal Children's Hospital; Janet Wright, Director of the Youth Advocacy Centre; barrister Jann Taylor; and criminal justice researcher April Chrzanowski from Griffith University. 

They raised a number of key issues to be considered in the treatment of young offenders, ranging from social and medical factors to the high cost of incarceration in relation to alternative rehabilitation programs.

Dr Stathis said that the vast majority of young people in youth detention centres have either a history of physical or sexual abuse, have suffered parental neglect or intergenerational trauma, or are exposed to a toxic peer group or family environment.

Early parenting programs such as ‘Triple P’, developed at UQ, and youth development initiatives can help to reduce the risk of offending by improving a young person’s home environment. 

Ms Chrzanowski revealed that the cost of detaining a juvenile in a youth detention centre is around $240,000 per year.    

Ms Taylor said that many young people in detention centres are unable to obtain bail simply because there is no safe place for them to stay due to family dysfunction.

The Youth Justice panel discussion was the final of a three part Social Justice Series organised in collaboration with Caxton Legal Centre and QUT and Griffith law schools.