Youth detention law change sparks widespread outcry

Savannah Meacham |

Steven Miles’ government has faced pressure to change the principle of detention as a last resort.
Steven Miles’ government has faced pressure to change the principle of detention as a last resort.

A controversial decision to scrap detention as a last resort in Queensland has sparked concerns the state’s youth incarceration rate will skyrocket.

The Queensland government has been accused of breaching its international human rights commitments after announcing it would redraft the Youth Justice Act clause.

Premier Steven Miles on Wednesday confirmed the clause “detention as a last resort” would be amended to read children should be detained in custody where “necessary”, saying the change would keep Queenslanders safe.

“We have changed the law to tell the courts they must consider community safety and if there is a risk to community safety then a young person must be detained,” he told reporters.

Mr Miles had been under pressure for months to make the change amid a youth crime outcry.

A file photo of Katherine Hayes
Youth Advocacy Centre chief Katherine Hayes says Queenslanders should be disappointed by the change. (HANDOUT/YOUTH ADVOCACY CENTRE)

All states and territories in Australia recommend preventive measures first before youth detention under United Nations conventions.

Youth Advocacy Centre chief executive Katherine Hayes claimed Queensland was “not meeting its obligations under international laws” with the clause change.

“I think morally Queenslanders should be disappointed,” she said.

But the state government said the change complied with the Human Rights Act.

Mr Miles said under the updated clause, young offenders must be detained when other measures of prevention and intervention are not sufficient but not for longer than necessary.

“We’ve seen the terms that are in current use undermine confidence in the laws and confidence in the courts,” he said.

Mr Miles said the legislation change would undergo six weeks of committee scrutiny before it passed into law, an announcement that sparked widespread criticism.

Opposition Leader David Crisafulli accused the premier of a sneaky political manoeuvre.

“Changing the words will not change the law,” he said.

“It shows how desperate the government has become to try and create a perception of doing something under immense pressure from the Queensland community.”

The LNP opposition’s main promise ahead of the October state election has been to remove “detention as a last resort” entirely.

But support bodies have slammed both political parties, saying they are not considering the needs of children falling into a life of crime.

“This is wannabe macho men fighting over who can be the toughest when actually we need cool heads who are willing to explain … the things that will go towards addressing violence in our communities,” Queensland Council of Social Services’ Aimee McVeigh told reporters.

She said detention centres are already brimming with children and Wednesday’s announcement will only make it worse.

“I think it’s absolutely disingenuous to be talking about removing detention as a last resort as if it’s a panacea to community safety – the reality is we’re already detaining more children than we have capacity for,” she said.

The Child Death Review report released in March revealed Queensland locked up more children than the rest of the country.

“The system’s already under pressure,” Youth Advocacy Centre’s Ms Hayes said.

“It’s an abysmal place for young people. They’re suffering and when they come out they’ll re-offend.”

Support bodies said the government should focus on prevention, protection and rehabilitation.

“Queensland’s politicians need to invest meaningfully in evidence-based interventions that actually will make a difference,” Justice Reform Initiative director Mindy Sotiri said.