The Guardian • Issue #1951

Qld Labor government’s misguided crackdown on juvenile crime

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1951

The Queensland Labor government announced on Wednesday, 9th February, that it will be cracking down on juvenile crime, a move many legal advocacy groups have immediately and roundly condemned. This announcement comes in the final year of QLD Labor government leader Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Youth Justice Strategy Action Plan 2019-2021, which was supposedly enacted to address the structural causes of “juvenile crime.”

The Action Plan outlined the practical steps the Queensland Labor Premier would be taking over the two year period to address this issue. It was based around what they called the “Four Pillars,”: intervene early, keep children out of court, keep children out of custody, and reduce re-offending. The actions that the Plan were supposed to take were meant to “work differently with communities, engage differently with young people in trouble with the law, and deliver entirely new services and infrastructure.”

To begin this initiative, the Queensland Labor government spent $332.5 million to tackle youth crime, created a new Department of Youth Justice, created new programs to reduce the high number of children remanded in custody and ensure the safety and wellbeing of children currently held in police watch houses; and amended the Youth Justice Act 1992 to remove legislative barriers to children being granted bail.

So, two years later, how successful have these measures been? It seems like the Queensland Labor government isn’t particularly happy with the results as they have announced a new set of sweeping legislative changes.

The proposed measures are in stark contrast to the original intentions of the Action Plan. They include:

  • Reversing the presumption of bail in cases of serious indictable offences
  • Expecting more of parents and carers – courts can seek assurances from them that the offender will adhere to the bail conditions or bail will not be granted
  • Courts will be given the option to issue GPS trackers as a condition of bail for sixteen and seventeen-year-olds
  • Police on the Gold Coast will be provided hand-held metal detectors to check for knives
  • Anti-hooning laws will be strengthened so that the registered owner of a vehicle can be deemed responsible for offences unless the car was stolen or someone else was driving

A parliamentary inquiry will examine whether or not remote engine immobilisers should be implemented.

These measures are accompanied by the confusing rhetoric that, despite a substantial overall reduction in youth crime, they are necessary to target the ten per cent of children who re-offend. Even at a quick glance, none of the proposed measures address any of the social and structural reasons why youth crime exists. If youth crime has been decreasing under the original Action Plan then it’s hard to see how these new measures are supposed to help. This is precisely the concern raised by critics and advocacy groups.

Indigenous advocacy groups and criminologists have expressed concerns that this crackdown will disproportionately affect Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander children, a group that is already overrepresented in the judicial system. Debbie Kilroy, the chief executive of the prisoner advocacy service Sisters Inside stated that the changes “will ensure more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will be imprisoned,” adding that any changes must “come from consultation with non-government organisations who have the answers and have been working on the ground and getting results.”

The Australian Lawyers Alliance also put out the following statement:

“The initiatives will not reduce offending on bail and will not have the desired deterrent effect. Evidence shows that this approach is ineffective for young offending […] Creating a presumption against bail for youth committing further indictable offences contradicts all effective youth justice principles that promote diversion away from detention and the criminal justice system … locking more young people up is no solution – it just increases the likelihood of even more serious offending as the young people become adults.”

In effect, these new measures will do nothing more than increase police and court powers. The introduction of these measures is a snap decision and a move away from the previous attempts at structural reform. However, even the structural reforms that the Queensland government had previously been pursuing could not properly address the societal reasons that give rise to crime.

Relative poverty, stagnant wages, and housing insecurity are among the many reasons people turn to crime. The other side of the coin is that the wealthy have a far easier time with the legal system. All the advantages that wealth can buy; access to better lawyers, lower rates of arrest and incarceration etc. All these advantages are also enjoyed by their children. When the repercussions are much lower, there is less incentive for the children of the wealthy to think about the consequences of their actions, a supposed symptom of high social status which got named “affluenza” a few years back.

At a federal level, both Liberal and Labor governments have a long history of mistreating and incarcerating children. From the Stolen Generation, to off-shore detention centres, to the horrors at Don Dale Detention Centre in the Northern Territory. Just last year, Parliament rushed through a Bill that allows ASIO to interrogate and detain children as young as fourteen, down from sixteen.

So what are the alternatives? It is worthwhile turning towards the historical example of the USSR which developed a system of summer holiday camps that organised kids’ activities. The All-Union Young Pioneer camp first started in 1925 and continued up until the disintegration of the USSR. The summer camps catered for an extensive range of interests, both professional and recreational, from sports and modelling programs to technical and geological ones, where children could focus on their specific interests.

These summer camps would run from anywhere from one to three months, and often children would get the chance to see other parts of the country; for example, those who lived in the north could visit the south, such as Georgia or Crimea. Parents would be asked to pay a fee for the accommodation, however, this fee was usually entirely covered by whichever trade union or state organisation the parents worked for.

By the 1970s, there were approximately forty thousand of these camps across the country, which millions of children would attend. They were even open to a select number of international children. To keep children occupied, part of their daily routine included physical exercise, excursions in the surrounding areas, and storytelling around the campfire. Older children were able to help out on the collective farms, and for those who were unable to travel, there were city camps that gave them similar access. One of the international children from Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom, Carl Bromwich, recalls a song (that he’d later have to look up online as he didn’t understand the words) they’d sing around the campfire in Belarus.

  • High rise our campfires into the blue night,
  • We are pioneers – the children of the workers,
  • Near is the time of our best years
  • And the pioneers’ motto is, “Always be ready!”
  • These programs were based on collective participation and comradery.

For children with special needs and various health conditions there existed a large number of sanatoria where they were provided with all kinds of treatment depending on what was needed. Some operated throughout the year and schooling was provided there. Disruptive and problematic children were handled through a multilayered system: schools would first look into the living conditions of the child, then parents would be called in and strategies discussed to address the core reasons for the child’s problematic behaviour. Parents were also actively involved in school life through parents’ meetings, some extracurricular activities, school trips, visits to factories and laboratories etc.

In essence, everybody was busy doing something and it was largely free.

While these social programs and measures mostly disintegrated with the collapse of the USSR they nonetheless provide a far more expansive, and national, model for what advocacy groups in Queensland have been calling for. This serves as a perfect illustration of the fundamental tension between the demands of the working class and social advocacy groups against the power of the state.

On paper, the Queensland Labor government understands the concept that structural reform is necessary, but when confronted with the material reality of the inadequacy of their reforms, they turned towards more repressive measures. This is the typical behaviour of the bourgeois state. It tries to conceal the limitations of its reforms, reforms which only tokenistically aid the working class. The moment these reforms prove to be ineffective, the capitalist state will revert to repressive measures.

The working class understands its social needs concretely, whereas the capitalist state is shrouded behind a bureaucracy which is maintained by force. Only a socialist society can cater to the needs and interests of the working class and their children. This is especially true when it comes to addressing juvenile crime

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