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Mount Isa residents want out, while young offenders are shut in for hours on end

As longtime Mount Isa residents flee a city they complain has become too violent, more evidence has emerged of Queensland’s juvenile justice system failing to cope with youth offenders, some of whom have been locked in their cells for more than 21 hours a day because of understaffing.

Jan 25, 2023, updated Jan 25, 2023
There were 30 cars reportedly stolen in the mining city of Mount Isa last month, the last straw for some residents who say they are sick of the assaults, home invasions and business break-ins and are leaving town. (Image: ABC News)

There were 30 cars reportedly stolen in the mining city of Mount Isa last month, the last straw for some residents who say they are sick of the assaults, home invasions and business break-ins and are leaving town. (Image: ABC News)

A Children’s Court hearing in Mount Isa has heard that a 17-year-old boy caught stealing cars, petrol, cigarettes and groceries, was confined to his cell for an average of 21 hours and 23 minutes for every day he spent in detention waiting for his court appearance.

The harrowing details have emerged as the Palaszczuk Government prepares to introduce even tougher penalties and longer sentences for young offenders in the Parliament next month and commits to build more detention centres to address what some are calling a ‘youth crime epidemic’.

The crime wave is hitting northern centres like Townsville and Mount Isa hard. The ABC is reporting that 30 cars were stolen in the mining city last month, the last straw for some residents who say they are sick of the assaults, home invasions and business break-ins and are leaving town.

But as reported previously by InQueensland, experts say the ‘tough on crime’ mindset will only backfire and make the problem worse.

Youth Justice Minister Leanne Linard said young offenders must be held accountable for their actions, but they must also be given the opportunity to turn their lives around.

“Which is why we are investing in evidence-based programs that provide support,” she said.

“The government continues to listen to the advice of the police and youth justice experts to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to address this complex community issue.”

The details aired by magistrate Eoin Mac Giolla Ri on Tuesday in the case of Indigenous teenager David Taylor (not his real name) would indicate the challenge for policy makers on multiple fronts, which on the face of court evidence and statistics is failing to deter large numbers of at-risk, vulnerable kids from crime and provide suitable care and meaningful rehabilitation once they make contact with the criminal justice system.

As Opposition Leader David Crisafulli told reporters recently when demanding the government return early from the summer holidays to debate reforms to the Youth Justice Act, the system is no longer working for anybody – not the offenders, not the police and certainly not the communities like Mount Isa living in fear.

Take the case of young David Taylor as an example.

Taylor spent 10 days in the Mount Isa watchhouse and a further 26 days in the Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville over December-January before his case was even heard, perhaps because Queensland has a lack of youth detention centres and no remand centres purpose built for young people.

During that period, it has been calculated that on average he only spent two hours and 37 minutes outside of his cell each day, well below the 12 hours that is recommended.

All he had for company was a television and intermittent visits from a nurse, psychologist, case workers and a music teacher. The appointed cultural liaison officer only visited the boy’s unit block once.

On Christmas Eve, he was locked in his cell for 23 hours and 50 minutes and on Christmas Day 20 hours and 40 minutes.

While in custody, his mother and primary care giver suffered a heart attack, requiring an extensive stay in hospital, while his father currently serves time in jail for domestic violence offences against her.

Details of the boy’s family history, the events leading up to his arrest and the disturbing circumstances of his subsequent detention coincide with an unprecedented spotlight on youth crime in regional Australia, currently tightly focused on Alice Springs.

As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese touched down in the central Australian community amid demands to curb a rising tide of violence and street crime, Mount Isa magistrate Eoin Mac Giolla Ri was shining his own light into why solving youth crime will be no easy fix.

Records tended to the court by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (ATSIL) show a system in peril, woefully under-resourced and under-staffed, leading the magistrate to conclude in a scathing judgement that locking children in cells well above the acceptable time was likely being used to alleviate pressures on distressed staff.

Taylor is no longer in detention.

He was released on the same day he was sentenced on January 10 on account that he had already spent 36 days incarcerated in conditions described by the magistrate as “onerous”.

Taylor’s journey towards the youth criminal justice system started long before last month.

His family first came to the attention of Child Safety the year he was born, though no formal orders were ever made in relation to him. Child Safety’s concerns included violence in the home, child neglect and substance abuse.

The violence in the home involved substantial and ongoing violence by his father against his mother, resulting in jail time.

According to Mac Giolla Ri, Taylor has a substantial criminal history, but until he committed the offences last month, he appeared to be outgrowing his offending.

“Many young people can dramatically reduce their offending behaviour as they mature,” the magistrate told the court.

“As the relevant parts of the brain physically mature, consequential reasoning develops and a young person is better able to regulate risk-taking and to understand that actions have consequences.

“Similarly, a drop off in offending is sometimes seen when children are old enough to work to earn their own money or old enough to qualify for government benefits.”

In the 12 months prior to last month’s offending, Taylor had only committed two offences – an unlawful use of a car and a stealing offence, both in July 2022, for which he was sentenced to 29 days detention.

His story comes after InQueensland reported last week the case of another youth offender in Mount Isa, identified as WAD, who had his latest offending scrubbed from the record by order of the Children’s Court despite “19 pages of criminal history”.

While not commenting on the specific case of WAD, Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) Leader and local Traeger MP Robbie Katter said the Youth Justice Act in its current form was fanning an unprecedented youth crime crisis across typically peaceful communities.

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He said many sentences given to young offenders based on the provisions of the Act were grossly out-of-step with community expectations.

He said even those committing the most serious of offences appeared almost “untouchable” when it came to the law.

He said he considered his hometown, Mount Isa, “ground zero” when it came to the Queensland youth crime crisis.

He said the city was averaging about 800 break-ins a year and a car theft almost every night.

“Residents are at their wits’ end,” Katter said.

“The most recent response by the government to youth crime amounts to nothing more than safe political responses and posturing, and nobody has any faith in what’s been proposed – like changes to maximum sentencing and two new youth detention centres – will amount to any positive change.”

But Linard is adamant that progress is being seen from programs such as restorative justice conferencing, bail support services and ‘Transition to Success’, a program which provides vocational training and alternative education.

Mount Isa is also one of 18 locations with a multi-agency collaborative panel, which oversees intensive case management of serious repeat offenders.

“This work is addressing the underlying complex factors that contribute to their offending,” Linard said.

“Mount Isa is part of a four-year on-country program trial, enabling Elders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mentors to provide intensive mentoring, support and supervision for young repeat offenders, with the aim of turning their lives around.”

Linard said other key programs include ‘Rethinking Our Attitudes to Driving’ which targets young people who steal cars; the 24/7 Mount Isa Transitional Hub which identifies, supports and diverts young people on the streets at night who are at risk of offending; and ‘Community Connect ‘which involves government and non-government agencies working together to prevent youth crime.

“In December last year the government announced initiatives and legislative amendments to strengthen how young offenders are dealt with in the court system This included $10 million to . supply 20,000 engine immobilisers to be trialled in Mount Isa, Cairns and Townsville to help prevent car theft,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

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