Restorative Practices International Urges Queensland Government to Reconsider Youth Justice Policies

Restorative Practices International (RPI) urges the Queensland Government to reconsider its recent changes to youth justice laws and policies passed in the 2023 Strengthening Community Safety Bill.

Queensland already has the highest rate of youth detention in Australia, with little to show for this in terms of improved community safety or meeting the needs of young people and victims of crime. The current proposals will push even more young people into the revolving door of incarceration and create more serious and repeat offenders, more crime in communities, and more victims.

Despite commitments from the Federal government and the current Queensland Government to reduce rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in custody and youth justice, these recent laws and policies will also result in further disparities for First Nations young people and place further burdens on their families and communities.

It is not possible to incarcerate away the problem of youth crime. This approach was tried in the United States for over two decades, with a massive increase in youth incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, there is broad consensus from policymakers and scholars that this growth in incarceration did little to reduce youth crime and diverted billions of dollars away from effective and cost-efficient preventative and rehabilitative measures.  

However, in the last two decades the United States has reduced youth custody rates by almost 70 percent, while also seeing large reductions in serious youth offending. This is not an anomaly. Many other countries have also significantly reduced youth crime while reducing or maintaining low rates of youth incarceration including Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

RPI understands there is no ready-made solution to reducing youth crime or to meeting the needs of young people, their families, and their communities. However, countries and states that have reduced youth crime in the recent past share several strategies. These include:  

  1. Prioritising and funding of evidence-based prevention programs and services, including prenatal health and early family support programs, funded childcare and support services for working parents, education and skill-based programs, and mentoring and community engagement programs, 
  2. Developing and utilising community-based alternatives to incarceration, including diversionary programs and multi-systemic community-based approaches for young people with significant needs,
  3. Coordinating services for young people and their families, including agency coordination to better understand the context of offending, share information and expertise, and utilise effective wrap-around responses,   
  4. Using innovative justice practices such as therapeutic jurisprudence to help support young offenders with drug abuse or mental health problems and more effectively divert them away from further involvement in offending,
  5. Using restorative justice practices to support young people to be accountable for harms they have caused, afford victims opportunity to voice these harms directly to youth offenders, and allow young people to make amends directly to the victim and community,
  6. Improving reintegrative services and strategies to better support young people in their capacity and decisions to move away from offending, including job training and education, housing support, social services, and continued delivery of other services as needed once they leave the youth justice system,
  7. Changing sentencing laws to reduce use of incarceration and other “tough on crime” approaches in lieu of preventative, therapeutic, community-based, and restorative approaches to better meet the needs of young people, their families, victims of crime, and communities.

The Queensland government is now embarking on an approach to youth justice that has been tried and has failed, in many other countries. The recent changes to youth justice laws and policies are contrary to the large body of research on evidence-based strategies that are effective and also cost-efficient in reducing youth offending. These recent changes are also contrary to the need to develop, grow, and evaluate effective programs for young people in Queensland, including funding and sustained support for programs developed by First Nations communities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.  

RPI urges the Queensland Government invest in a more forward-looking and holistic strategy to youth justice focused on prevention, therapeutic and rehabilitative interventions, and restorative responses to youth offending. Such approaches reduce youth crime and improve the lives of young people, many of whom enter the youth justice system with significant histories of victimisation and social disadvantage. Such approaches also help, in turn, to create safer and more just communities for all Queenslanders.