Overdue changes to youth justice system ahead

Monday, April 10, 2017

There has been a long standing problem with the Queensland criminal justice system, and that is our inclusion of 17-years-olds in the adult justice system.  It has been a problem unique to Queensland, being the only state in Australia to treat 17-years-olds as adults and send them to adult prisons.

This is despite the fact that in all other areas of law, 17-year-olds are treated as children.  They are not able to vote, consume alcohol (legally) or marry.  Yet if they commit offences, they are liable to be sent to a jail with other adults instead of other children.

Many of our client’s and their families are shocked to learn that at the age of 17, they will be dealt with as an adult by police and the courts, instead of being dealt with by the youth justice system.  Whilst it has been a contentious issue amongst the legal profession, many persons not involved with the legal or criminal justice system have been unaware of the issue and simply assume that as a 17-year-old, they will be dealt with as a child.

Thankfully, after decades of lobbying and calling for change, Queensland Parliament on 3 November 2016 passed the Youth Justice and Other Legislation (Inclusion of 17-year-old Persons) Amendment Act 2016 (“Act“).  The purpose of this Act is to ensure 17-year-olds are dealt with as children by the police and courts, as they are in all other states of Australia, as opposed to being brought before the adult court system.  The aim of this reform is to in fact reduce offending and re-offending by young persons.

This amendment is a welcomed change towards protecting the rights of children in Queensland.  Two of the paramount considerations of the Youth Justice Act 1992 (Qld) are to rehabilitate children and reintegrate them with the community.  

The court in dealing with children, also must have regard to the following:

  • keeping children safe and promoting their wellbeing,
  • the child’s development,
  • strengthening ties between children and their families, as well as the community, and
  • that imprisonment should be imposed as a last resort.

These are not matters which a court in sentencing an adult must have regard to.
 The police also have broader powers in dealing with children, with the Act allowing them to formally caution children or use other methods to divert them away from the court system altogether.

Whilst the Act has been passed, it is currently awaiting proclamation.  It is expected to come into force prior to 2 November 2017, to allow for the courts and other stakeholders to prepare for the transition.  However, it is certainly an encouraging step in the right direction.

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