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Kicking own goals in Queensland


Anyone who has tried to eradicate wisteria knows that cutting down the vine is just the beginning. The roots extend in all directions throwing up new shoots. That is also true of the decision of the Queensland Government to pass an amendment to permit holding children in police cells. In doing so it overrides its own Human Rights Act. On the face of it this was a desperate and discrediting action. Underneath it, however, was a complex coming together of events, prejudices and attitudes.


The Government was immediately criticised on two grounds. Its amendment involved a repudiation of its commitment to the human rights of children. It also avoided public and parliamentary debate by being attached to another Bill amending legislation relating to the treatment of children. Critics saw it as an affront both to human rights and to Parliamentary democracy.

It is hard to defend the Government on either of these charges. But if we ask why the Government acted so crudely and hastily, we can appreciate the complex challenges it faced. The first were legal in character. The decision followed a Court Judgment that the widespread practice of holding children in police cells was illegal. The judgment opened the way to class actions brought against the State. It also made acute the problem of dealing with children arrested for misbehaviour when juvenile detention centres were already overcrowded. Many children were already being held for an extended time in police cells.

This pressure on the justice system had been caused in large part by previous legislation to deny bail to children for serious offenses and to make the breach of bail a criminal offence. Given the natural carelessness of children in observing adult regulations and the opportunity the legislation gave police to keep children off the street, the result of this legislation was the incarceration of many children either for breach of bail or for other offences. It also involved suspension of some provisions of the human rights of children. The government was thus caught in a legal net of its own making and felt the need to slice its way out.

The second challenge lay in the management of offences committed by children. The resources have not kept up with the demand created in large part by the Government’s own actions. The difficulty is evident. If refusing bail, locking children up and multiplying criminal offences are meant to deter children from offending, they come up against the reality of children’s brain development. Only in late adolescence do children weigh consequences. In adolescence they are impulsive and motivated by peer group pressure. Furthermore, separating them from families, placing them with adult criminals and prolonged isolation in cells increase the likelihood that they will return to detention and to adult gaols. To focus on punitive measures as a way to prevent crime is counterproductive.

Nor to all appearances is the justice system able even to keep children safe and healthy. The lack of staff has meant that children are held in solitary confinement for much of their time, educational programs are underfunded and understaffed, and complaints about abuse and stress are frequent. It is likely that children will leave Police Stations and places of detention with worse health, less connection with society, less responsibility for their actions than they entered them. This is not to criticise the Staff or the police. It says that they are inadequately resourced, trained and motivated to work with children.

The third challenge facing the Queensland Government was public sentiment. The people of Queensland rightly expect that their cars are not stolen, their roads are safe and that their houses are not broken into. They have the right to expect that the Government will ensure public order. Both crime and highly coloured reporting of it stir anxiety and anger and a demand for instant action. In such circumstances governments find punitive regulations attractive, even though they will only create further problems. It requires political courage for Governments to resist this pressure. We may sympathise with the Queensland Government in its predicament without approving the measures it is adopting to address it.

The fourth and most important challenge to the Queensland Government was and is to respond to the children themselves as persons and not as a collective problem. Like other children they are the future of their families, of their communities and of Queensland. Of course they are also actors in break-ins, car theft, drug taking and other misbehaviour. They are also predominantly Indigenous Australians whose lives are marked by many forms of disadvantage including early exposure to alcohol, to domestic violence, inadequate access to childcare, poor mental or physical health, and opportunities for education or employment. Above all, however, they are human beings crying out to be recognised as precious, and to win a place at the table of society.

Unfortunately, like other people on the margins of our society they are vulnerable to being demonised, identified with the worst instances of unlawful behaviour, and so regarded as objects to be dealt with rather than persons with wounds, needs and a future. Anger can easily find expression in the desire to cane, send to boot camps, to lock up and throw aways the keys and other forms of punishment. These are then labelled as justice and a path to reform. They are justified as a means to ends that have nothing to do with the children’s welfare.

That is not necessary. Other approaches to children who have broken laws are more effective than detention. They include diversionary programs and restorative justice programs. All these give priority to prevention over punishment by addressing the interlocking forms of disadvantage. They respond to bad behaviour through programs that help young people to take responsibility for their actions and the effects these have on others.

The argument most commonly made in favour of the criminalisation of violent actions by children appeals to famous cases like the murder of James Bulger by two ten year old boys in England. These, however, are relatively few. Certainly through their actions some children may pose a serious threat to society. They should be detained in small facilities resourced for rehabilitation.

The available evidence demonstrates that these therapeutic measures are effective. They are based on helping young people to build good relationships. This demands long-term funding for institutions and training which stretches beyond the election cycle. They will however save the money presently spent on addressing the crime that the justice system itself breeds. And they will help many children to grow into good adults.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Depositphotos.com 

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Existing comments

I have often felt that, in a curious reversion to colonial times, our elected leaders, sometimes from what is now termed the Brahmin Left, behave towards their constituents or future constituents just like the worst colonial governors did towards the convicts. Anastasia Palaschak's Labor government seems to be becoming increasingly authoritarian, as with this decision to incarcerate juvenile offenders in adult prisons, which has been widely criticized. Where to from here? Perhaps we should follow the example of the Scandinavian countries, where rehabilitation is the key theme of their penal system. There has to be a better way.

Edward Fido | 08 September 2023  

Greetings Andrew
Thank you for this sequential and balanced article.
Liz and I were working with the staff of a large school this week and one of the teachers told me of his best friend who works in a juvenile prison.
When he told his friend he was working in a school that employs Restorative Practices, his friend expressed high frustration at not being able to convince schools to adopt the process.
“If we can teach the kids about harm and repair, I would gladly accept my redundancy.”

Vic O'Callaghan | 08 September 2023  

There’s a song. It goes: “I want to know what love is, I want you to show me”. That is what young people who are behaving in a manner which does not fit are articulating. If society/government does not choose to listen then the chance has been lost. Punitive measures escalate tensions and a gentle approach signals strength. In the case of significant criminality by children the rarity of that situation calls for significant work to heal victims and perpetrators.

Pam | 08 September 2023  

Queensland's current Human Rights Commissioner and Commissioner of Police have both come out against this recent development, as have many eminent legal figures. This may well be a disastrous finale to Anastasia Palaschak's political career.

Edward Fido | 10 September 2023  

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