NSW Labor’s new bail laws for children 'ignores evidence'

May 29, 2024
young people jailed
NSW Labor's new bail laws will lead to more children being imprisoned. Image: Justice Reform Initiative

Despite widespread opposition from First Nations, legal and community groups dealing with youth crime, New South Wales Labor enacted harsh new bail laws in March.

The Bail and Crimes Amendment Bill 2024 will make it harder for children between 14–18 years old to get bail.

A letter signed by 60 organisations, including the Sydney Institute of Criminology, the University of Technology Sydney Law Faculty (Criminal Justice), the University of New South Wales Centre for Criminology Law and Justice and the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), urged Premier Chris Minns not to ignore “years of evidence” about how to reduce youth crime and said the bail changes will “make crime worse in regional communities, not better”.

“Throwing more children in jail will lead to horrific outcomes for communities, families and those children, compounding abuse and trauma,” the letter said. 

It said more children in jail “will cause unspeakable damage to Closing The Gap” and attempts to stop intergenerational trauma for First Nations children.

The signatories said a better strategy would be to provide resources for local communities to support after-school, evening and weekend activities that engage at-risk young people. They also suggested targeted programs for at-risk children and “community partnerships” between police and Aboriginal-controlled services.

There was dissent expressed inside Labor as well. NSW Society of Labor Lawyers said on March 21 the amendments are “a band-aid solution”, which will likely lead to the “most vulnerable groups” being jailed.

It warned the bill would “further entrench criminality in regional communities and strain our criminal justice and prison system”.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCLL) said the state’s juvenile bail laws were “unprecedented in Australia”.

NSWCCL President Lydia Shelley said “punitive approaches simply don’t work” and urged Minns to look at the evidence. “When children this young are forced through a criminal legal process, their health, wellbeing and future are put at risk.”

Sue Higginson, NSW Greens justice spokesperson, said “when bail is denied to children, they are more likely to be enmeshed in the criminal justice system”. The bail changes and new offences “do not address concerns for improved community safety” and undermine “the real solutions that will work” which are “therapeutic and non-punitive”.

Higginson said the cost of jailing young people is well beyond $985,500 each person each year.

She predicted the changes will lead to more children being imprisoned, most of whom will be First Nations children. “It is difficult to see how this is anything other than a colonial and racist intervention by the Premier.”

A new report by the Justice Reform Initiative (JRI) found that 61.5% of young people in custody are First Nations young people. On any given night in June 2023, 106 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander young people were in detention.

Alternatives to Incarceration in New South Wales gives details of how community-led organisations are reducing reoffending through restorative means.

ALS criticised the new bail laws, saying on March 22 that they “will increase crime and make communities more dangerous”.

Arthur Moses SC, national patron of JRI and former President of the Law Council of Australia, also warned against them.

In an opinion piece for the Sunday Telegraph on March 17, Moses and ALS CEO Karly Warner said the evidence shows that “incarceration of children increases crime by compounding the trauma vulnerable children have already been through, and giving them an apprenticeship in the criminal world that leads to more serious offending later in life”.

They said “tougher” bail laws have been tried and failed.

Rather than chasing a “tough on crime” headline, they said the government should “secure services for their constituents, which include these children so we don’t have offending in the first place”.

Warner said Queensland has demonstrably shown that tightening bail laws to keep children locked up does not work.

JRI spokesperson Mindy Sotiri said organisations with a good record of helping young people are hampered by the lack of funding. JRI is calling on Labor to establish a special $300 million fund over four years for community-led organisations which are successfully breaking the cycle of incarceration and recidivism.

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