Youth Justice is a major topic in Queensland at the moment with proposed news laws being debated in parliament. The tragedies that led to the rapid shift in direction for youth justice responses in Queensland have had far reaching devastation for the families and loved ones of those left behind. Our hearts go out to them.

Our hearts also go out to the children, young people and families embroiled in the youth justice system. From Queensland Youth Housing Coalition’s (QYHC) perspective, offending behaviours and homelessness sit within a symptomatic continuum of structural imbalances, poverty and social disadvantage. Relevant to this, is the reality that, in Australia, 1 in 8 young people are living in poverty (ACOSS).

Experts regularly draw a clear link between homeless young people and juvenile offending and note that they are at a higher risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system than their housed counterparts:  Young homeless people are often unable to support themselves, ineligible for benefits, and unlikely to find employment. Consequently, they may engage in survival behaviours—begging, theft, drug dealing and prostitution—to earn income for food and shelter.  Not only are some of these behaviours illegal, they are also more visible to police due to the lack of privacy experienced by homeless people. Furthermore: Trauma adds to the risk of offending behaviour, contributing to the link between child maltreatment, homelessness and offending.  Experiences of trauma—both prior to leaving home and a result of being homeless—lead to poor self-regulation and coping skills, placing the young person at high risk for serious illegal behaviour (Stewart and Hurren, 2017).

We are clear that there is a marked correlation between homelessness and involvement in the criminal justice system. Specific vulnerabilities exist for homeless and at risk young people, many of whom:

  • Have been harmed or continue to be harmed and/or are at risk of harm that includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse and/or neglect;
  • Have no significant adult figure who can exercise care and responsibility;
  • Experience Domestic and Family Violence and/or family conflict and breakdown;
  • Have limited or no support networks;
  • Experience the impacts of trauma;
  • Experience disruption to education and barriers to employment.

The protective needs of young people may be further exacerbated as a result of particular disadvantage due to cultural and social factors, including the impact of discrimination. These include but are not limited to:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people;
  • Young people with cognitive difficulties;
  • Young people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds;
  • Young people with psychiatric conditions;
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual and questioning (LGBTIQA+) and sistergirl/brotherboy young people;
  • Young people with substance misuse issues;
  • Young people who are pregnant and/or parenting;
  • Young people exiting Juvenile Justice services, particularly young people on dual child protection and juvenile justice orders.

Across Australia nearly 20% of all people experiencing homelessness are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. There are high concentrations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in north and western Queensland who were represented in ‘severely crowded’ dwellings. QYHC is conscious of and concerned by the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in all of our systems, including: homelessness, juvenile justice and chid protection.

We know the importance of compassion for the countless children and young people who are traumatised as victims of abuse and crime and we maintain that compassion for the small number who act out their trauma in inappropriate and sometimes illegal ways. We believe, as evidence indicates, that criminalising children and young people’s behaviours that are often trauma based is counter-intuitive and potentially further traumatising. Most commonly, the behaviours displayed have an underlying message that adults need to pay attention to. As an organisation we aim for the developmental needs of children and young people to be more widely recognised across our society in order that children and young people receive the appropriate supports and interventions as they need them. Criminal behaviours exist in a continuum of diverse behaviours associated with complex social and familial factors. Addressing these behaviours in a holistic manner that includes a collaborative systems approach is necessary.  We need to be asking: “Why are children and young people offending?” Equal attention to this is required alongside the questions currently being posed about how the legal system and wider community can best respond to criminal behaviours.

In order for a justice process to work well, ideally a child or young person needs to be guided in understanding the nature of their behaviour, its criminality and the impacts of their crime on themselves and others.  Being supported to consider the consequences of their behaviour, taking responsibility for their mistake, making recompense to those harmed and recognising the need to change their behaviours is optimum.  We know that adolescence is a crucial time of brain development and that biologically young people are predisposed to act more impulsively and take more risks. As such, decision makers need to recognise that the cognisance and decision making of young people is not always as developed as we may assume, and they require appropriate interventions until the brain is fully formed at the age of 25.

Young people who commit offences comprise a very small, complex and marginalised section of young people in our communities. They also tend to have a plethora of needs and we owe it to them to address these needs as soon as possible in their life trajectory.

Yes, those who commit serious offences need to be held to account. However, across the board what we need is a medical response for substance use, more drug and alcohol and mental health services, counselling for traumatised young people, educational responses for those who’ve disengaged and stable housing for children and young people and their families. If we are intent on raising young people who are active and engaged members of our communities, we need responses to acting out behaviours that are commensurate with their trauma and need. Punitive crime and punishment models don’t work and they make no sense to young people in the midst of their often complex life experiences.

Further information on the new Youth Justice reforms introduced to parliament can be found here:   https://statements.qld.gov.au/statements/91549