Three days before the end of 2022, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Queensland government announced it was set to enact a set of laws designed to crack down on youth offenders.
This is happening when the nation’s habitual jailing and harsh treatment of young inmates is being challenged as counterproductive.
The December 29 “Tough laws made even tougher” statement by Palaszczuk, police minister Mark Ryan and youth justice minister Leanna Linard was provoked by a recent killing.
Two teenagers have been charged with the Boxing Day murder of North Lakes woman Emma Lovell, who was stabbed to death during a home invasion.
Palaszczuk said the rollout of stiff penalties is a response to the community wants and that the package of laws was among the most comprehensive her state has ever enacted.
“Crime, especially youth crime, is a complex issue but community safety must come first,” Palaszczuk said. “All of the programs to divert children away from crime will continue but the community is demanding tougher penalties too.”
The statement said youth offenders would be incarcerated for longer periods, with the aim of allowing them to complete rehabilitation programs. The government is also providing $10 million to supply 20,000 engine immobilisers to prevent car theft in urban centres in the north.
Ten reforms are listed as part of broader legislative changes set to be introduced early this year. These include raising the maximum penalty for car theft from seven to 10 years, that will jump to 14 years in the case of aggravated car theft.
Previous bail history, criminal activity and the person’s track record will be considered in the sentencing. Penalties will increase if an offender brags about their crimes on social media. The government is further proposing to build two new youth justice centres, adding to the four already operating.
Ryan said that “tougher penalties, elevated surveillance and a concentrated ‘extreme’ police visibility in strategic locations at certain times will help disrupt the illegal activities of those who wish to do harm to the community”.
However these remarks fly in the face of growing calls around the country to bring an end to the harsh punishment of youths on the basis that it sets them up for a life of reoffending and incarceration.
Imprisonment is especially harmful to young people between the ages of 10 and 14, who are understood not to have developed to the point that they fully comprehend the consequences of their actions.
But despite the ongoing campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility, Queensland continues to imprison kids as young as 10 years old.
When parliament was given a chance to raise the age, via a Greens bill last August, Labor and the Coalition voted it down.
A nationwide issue
Since the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre revelations in mid-2016 revealed child detainees were being tortured and abused by youth justice officers, numerous other such incidents have also come to light. Among the latest is the fact that youth detainees in Tasmania’s Ashley child prison were being repeatedly sexually assaulted.
Greens Senator David Shoebridge has been calling for Don Dale and Ashley to be shut down. Together with Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, he announced at the end of last year that they will table a bill aimed at closing Darwin’s notorious Don Dale down.
The first calls to shut Don Dale were made by a 2017 royal commission. Despite the Coalition attorney general George Brandis agreeing to permit international Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture inspectors to monitor the country’s correctional facilities after they arrived last year, they were run out of town.
Indeed, both major political parties seem determined to carry on with their tough “law and order” agendas. While they try to placate prisoner reformers with the occasional progressive sentiment, for the most part, Labor and the Coalition seem determined to tighten the screws further.
[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers, where this article was first published.]