There is No Safety in Prisons and No Future in Injustice   

William Wood is Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University.

In the last two years (2021-2023) the Queensland government has passed a host of changes in youth justice legislation and policy intended to address the rise in serious youth crime. The bulwark of these have focused on increasing the use of detention through harsher sentencing, presumption against bail, and other measures designed to incapacitate young people in furtherance of community safety. Unfortunately, these measures will not improve community safety, reduce crime, or rehabilitate and reintegrate young people, for several reasons.

Increasing the Churn of Young People in Detention

Most young people in Queensland placed in custody serve shorter sentences. Very often they are in detention on remand (about 85 percent of young people in detention in 2021). Very often they are subsequently sentenced for “time served,” and then released because the law does not allow them to be on remand for more time than their sentence. Queensland has the highest rate of remand for young people in Australia. This is not because young people in Queensland are higher risk to the community than in other states and territories. Rather, it is because Queensland already has strict bail guidelines, and because so many youth offenders lack suitable accommodation or other conditions required for bail.

Thus, Queensland has a revolving door of young people that go in and out of detention. Since 2021, the rate of young people in detention has increased to the highest in Australia. The recent 2023 legislation will drive this number higher and result in a larger churn of young people in and out of youth custody. The Queensland government plans to build two more youth detention facilities in anticipation of this increase.  

The single biggest predictor of adult incarceration is youth incarceration. Young people that revolve in and out of detention fall further and further behind in educational, vocational, and social skills. They may become “cumulatively disadvantaged” as successive involvement with the youth justice system shuts off legitimate opportunities and prosocial relationships, and solidifies social marginalisation and relationships with deviant peers (especially older peers). There is almost no research that shows incarceration acts as an effective deterrent to crime for young offenders. There is much research that shows alternatives to youth incarceration are not only more effective for most youth offenders, but also more cost-efficient.

The Declining Efficacy of Incarceration

Secondly, while the Queensland government has increased sentences for a smaller number of high-profile crimes, these changes will not result in longer sentences for most youth offenders. Rather, the change will be more young people that cycle in and out of detention, return to their communities worse off than before, and with less to lose by engaging in criminal, anti-social, and self-harming behaviours. This will not reduce youth crime. We know this from the American experience of mass incarceration (of young people and adults), where there is a declining “return” on crime reduction and also cost-effectiveness as rates of incarceration increase. This is because a small number of people (youth and adult) are responsible for a much larger number of crimes, especially violent crimes. In countries like Australia (as with the United States), these people tend to be caught and incarcerated earlier in their lives. As incarceration rates increase, however, this “captures” less serious offenders, and the “rate of return” hits a point where there is minimal reduction effect. On the contrary, the costs of incarceration begin to outweigh any benefits, especially when states divert important educational, social service, and other funding towards the substantial costs of incarceration.

This is one of the primary reasons the United States has seen an almost 70 precent reduction in youth custody over the last two decades. Youth crime has fallen during this time, which has reduced rates of youth incarceration. But many liberal and conservative policymakers have also concluded that incarcerating larger numbers of youth offenders has little effect on reducing crime. The United States still faces substantial problems in youth justice, in particular the large overrepresentation of racial, ethnic, and Indigenous young people in all components of the youth justice system. Moreover, the bulk of the reduction in youth incarceration has come from a smaller number of states like California with large populations and previously high rates of youth custody. I am not suggesting Queensland should try to be more like the United States. On the contrary, it is clear in terms of youth incarceration rates that Queensland is becoming more like the United States. To put this into perspective, if Queensland were a US state today, it would currently be among the top five states for rates of youth incarceration.

The massive reduction of youth incarceration in the United States is nevertheless compelling in light of the argument by the current Queensland government that more youth incarceration is necessary for community safety. It is not. This is borne out in the recent histories of many other countries that have also achieved large reductions in youth incarceration with no increases in youth crime, including Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. If more incarceration worked to reduce more crime, by this logic Queensland should have some of the lowest youth crime rates in Australia given its high rate of youth incarceration. This is not the case. On the contrary, Queensland has the highest rate of return to custody for youth offenders in Australia,

An Ambiguous “Epidemic” of Youth Crime

Thirdly, it is not clear there is a youth crime “epidemic.” There is little question some communities and regions in Queensland have faced recent increasing youth crime problems. There is no question these communities, like all communities, deserve to live without fear of crime. And no one disputes the heinous and wanton violence of recent homicides that no family or community should have to suffer.

Yet the Queensland government has not produced any clear data demonstrating this purported epidemic in terms of overall increases in youth offending. Rather, data from 2022 shows an increase, in some regions, for some types of offenses – particularly burglaries and automobile theft. Most of this increase has come post-COVID, however, and research on youth offending in Queensland during COVID found a substantial decrease in most types of youth offending, particularly during extended lockdowns. Thus, the significant “increase” since 2022 may be misleading when compared to deceased rates of youth offending during COVID.  

Moreover, more recent crime data provided by the government that compares youth offending rates in the first half of 2022 to the first half of 2019 found declines compared to youth crime pre-COVID. This was the case even in Cairns, the Gold Coast, Mount Isa, the Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba, and Townsville – all of which have been targeted by the government as having significant youth crime problems. This is why many criminologists and youth justice advocates question the purported scope and severity of the youth crime problem in Queensland, and are critical of the wide net being cast that will capture an increasing number of young people and condemn them to the churn of youth incarceration.

Colour-blindness in a Bifurcated Youth Justice System

A large consensus of First Nations organisations, lawyers, researchers, and youth justice advocates argue the recent legislative and policy changes by the Queensland Government will disproportionality impact Indigenous young people, as well as Pacifica and other ethnic minority young people in Queensland.

Indigenous young people are already overrepresented in every stage of the youth justice system, beyond their relative rates of offending. In terms of youth incarceration, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people were over 60 precent of the youth detention population in 2021-2022, despite being less than 5 percent of the total youth population. Some of this is due to racial bias and prejudice in policing and jurisprudential practices. But much of this happens because actors in the criminal justice system (i.e. the police, the courts, corrections, and in some ways social services) “respond” to Indigenous and ethnic minority young people as if they are the same as white youth.

And they are the same, in the way that all children and young people are the same in their needs and wants. The need to be loved and nurtured. The need to be part of a community that is their place. The need to grow up feeling wanted, and respected, and able to be and become who they want to be.

But almost every piece of research shows we do not meet the needs and wants of Indigenous young people in the same way we do for most other young people. Indigenous youth are marginalised and disadvantaged in almost all facets of social life in Queensland – from the social and intergenerational capital of their families and communities, to their educational opportunities, to their health and mental health care, to the public infrastructure of their neighbourhoods, and so on.

It is thus not surprising a primary driver of overrepresentation is the use of remand.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are more likely to be in detention on remand than other young people. This is because of the same factors that socially disadvantage them outside of the walls of the prison. Few parts of the “system” for young people work in any coordinated way. But the lack of coordinated services disproportionally impacts Indigenous young people not only because of their disadvantage, but because their needs and best forms of support are often distinct from non-Indigenous youth.  

Yet despite endless funding initiatives and programs, there are very few youth justice initiatives designed by First Nations, for First Nations. On the contrary, Queensland has a poor history of supporting such initiatives, even when they show significant promise. This is problem long in the making. While effective programs to prevent or reduce youth offending take significant time to develop and grow, each successive administration in Queensland generally comes in with a host of new programs or initiatives. Compared to countries with more effective approaches to youth justice, in Queensland (and indeed much of Australia) there is a lack of continuity in general for the time and funding it takes to make such programs successful. In the case of youth justice initiatives developed by First Nations providers, these have remained at the margins of funding and sustained support for decades.

The egregious overrepresentation of Indigenous young people in the youth justice system and the appalling lack of demonstrable progress towards this problem make funding of and sustained commitment to First Nations youth justice programs more paramount than ever. It is time to stop the cycle of programs and punishment for Indigenous young people in Queensland that don’t work.  First Nations communities, elders, and service providers must be given sufficient resourcing and political commitment from the government to continue to develop and grow approaches that better meet the needs of Indigenous young people.   

The Indignity of Justice

Finally, there is too often a focus on young people in terms of preventing or reducing their offending. Debates and political pressure about “what works” are vital, particularly at this moment in Queensland history. However, there is another issue at stake, which is the basic standard of human rights for young people, and more generally the conversation about what young people need and deserve as young people, not as “offenders.”

Over the past few months, several reports have come out regarding the housing and treatment of youth offenders in detention facilities and bail houses. These reports detail protracted periods of solitary confinement, lack of due process, lack of access to legal services and family, and little to no provision of educational or rehabilitative services. Such treatment of young people is a gross violation of international human rights standards, and likely a violation of Queensland law. No child should be subject to inhumane treatment, denied due process or legal counsel, or deprived of basic minimum standards of care and support.

The Queensland government has admitted their recent legislation making breach of bail a criminal offence for young people overrides the state’s human rights laws. Police Minister Mark Ryan has acknowledged this amendment is “inconsistent with international standards about the best interests of the child.” This should give us pause. When a state must violate the human rights of children in the best interests of “the community,” this begs the question  – What types of communities need to violate the human rights of young people?

Such violations of basic dignity, rights, and needs do not teach young people accountability, or empathy, or any of the other lessons we want them to learn. They teach the opposite. They teach worthlessness, humiliation, and alienation. They demonstrate to young people they are in fact disposable.

Such violations teach another lesson as well, a very bad one for young offenders. They teach young people the rules are for them, not for us. They teach the lesson that this is all about power, not about principles, or ethics, or responding to wrongs in a way that holds young people accountable for their actions but recognises and upholds their dignity as a human being. If we cannot do this, no amount of prisons, or programs, or funding will make much of a difference when the lesson learned by young people is we think they deserve to be treated as less than human. Putting children in solitary cages and denying them their legal rights is not justice, in any form. There is no deterrence, or rehabilitation in such practices. Dignity cannot be taught through indignity. Accountability cannot be taught through iniquity.

If we cannot uphold these basic principles in how we treat young people, this is its own form of lawlessness – not from young people, but from the state itself. We have a moral, ethical, and legal obligation not only for the “best interests” of the child in a youth justice context, but to uphold the dignity and rights of young people as people. If we cannot do this, how can we possiblly expect young people to do otherwise.