Child criminals are wreaking havoc across Queensland, committing arson,
fraud, robbery and weapons offences – and most of them are getting away with
a mere slap on the wrist.
Almost 14,500 offences were committed by kids under 14 last financial year. Children between the ages of 10 and 14 unlawfully used motor vehicles more often than adults over the age of 35. They also committed more than 4000 shop stealing offences, 2300 unlawful entries, 700 assaults and 100 weapons offences, according to Queensland Police Service figures.
In almost half of offences involving juveniles, offenders were let off with a caution – and just one in four was arrested and held in custody.
Victims of Crime chief executive Chris Murphy said hardened young
offenders treated the Children's Court "as a joke".
"Many young offenders know the system and they know how the system works," Mr. Murphy said. "They know police are stretched, that the justice system will favour them and that they are likely to walk. Quite often the police know it's not worth trying because they will not receive the backing of the courts."
Retailers Association of Queensland spokesman Patrick McKendry agreed young offenders were getting off too lightly, even though they were responsible for much of the $270 million in goods stolen from shops each year. "Magistrates are not sending the correct message to the community," Mr McKendry said. "We'd like to see stiffer fines and penalties, including restitution where the offender is made to pay for the goods they've stolen."
Queensland Parents and Citizens Association president Garry Cislowski said parents had a responsibility to monitor where their children were throughout the day. "For anyone to be involved in weapons offences is alarming but for this number of kids under 14 to be involved is hard to wrap your mind around," he said. "We need to take a long, hard look at the sentencing regime."
Mr Cislowski said parents and schools should "instill values in children".
Criminologist Ross Homel said Queensland was at risk of a major increase in crime if juvenile offending was not addressed. "This should be a top priority for our country," said Professor Homel, from Griffith University in Brisbane.
"Early intervention is needed to head off the early onset of offending or we will continue to pay the price. In general, Australia overall has one of the highest rates of crime in the developed world and juvenile crime is a growing problem. It's already costing the community billions of dollars a year – and the earlier kids start offending, the more likely they are going to continue to offend and commit more serious and more frequent offences."
Professor Homel cited parenting, poverty and circumstances as the reasons kids as young as 10 were committing crime. "It's to do with parenting practices, in particular a lack of supervision and harsh and erratic discipline – in general what you would term parental neglect," Professor Homel said.
"In many cases, these children are also victims of abuse and come from social environments where the odds are stacked against them."
Mr Murphy called on the government to do more to solve the problem of juvenile offenders. "There is a danger in classifying people by their age rather than what they have done," he said. "The legislation needs to be looked at, so if a juvenile commits a certain number of offences, then they are no longer treated as a juvenile."
A spokeswoman for Families Minister Judy Spence, whose department deals with juvenile offenders, said the police and courts had a wide range of options, ranging from detention to cautions. She said the Beattie Government last year introduced amendments to youth justice legislation to balance the need to hold young offenders accountable and to provide avenues for diversion and rehabilitation.
"The aim of all government agencies is to protect the community and prevent, where possible, young people entering the youth justice system," she said.
Police and Corrective Services Minister Tony McGrady conceded child offenders were a major concern. "I recognise that serious and persistent juvenile offenders are a problem," he said.
Mr McGrady said police exercised their discretion when determining whether to arrest young people or caution them, depending on the severity of their crimes and their criminal history. "If you take away the discretionary ability of police, you go down the road of mandatory arrests and sentencing, which has proved unsuccessful and highly inappropriate in other jurisdictions, particularly when dealing with young people," he said.
'I hate cops ... I hate teachers'
"Adam" sits in the shade and lists the offences he has committed during the past three months. "I've been done for assault twice, willful damage, obstructing police, disorderly behaviour and verbal abuse to a police officer," he said. "I hate cops."
Adam – not his real name – is only 14. "I can't tell you too much about one of the assault charges because it is still before the courts but one of my female friends was thrown against a wall and I got into a fight with the guy who did it. The other assault charge was when a train driver threw me off the train because I didn't have a ticket. It got quite heated and I spat at him."
Asked why he didn't just buy a ticket, he said: "Why should I buy a ticket?"
I ask Adam – who is on a six-month good behaviour bond – if he has ever committed break and enters, to which he replied: "Not yet. However, last week we were mucking around in a wheelchair at a shopping centre, ramming into walls, just for fun," he said. "And when we're on the train, we'll pull the emergency stops and get chased by the guards."
Adam is one of thousands of teens who make up Queensland's shocking juvenile crime statistics. Out of school for more than eight months because "I hate the teachers and I hate school", Adam, say experts, is headed for jail if his record continues. He says one of the main reasons he offends is because he is "bored".
"I know I was doing these things wrong but I still did them," he said. Ask his case worker the reasons and it is a different story. "With most of these kids, you could say that they are just being brats but you could also say most of them have major issues they are trying to work through," said the case worker, who cannot be identified.
A counsellor with Mission Australia's Circuit Breaker program, he is one of many aiming to break the vicious cycle of kids like Adam. "We're a mobile crisis centre that uses intervention and prevention to help families with troubled 10- to 15-year-olds.
"Adam doesn't respond well to authority but I'm not the sort of person to give up, even if it can be very frustrating at times. I have also found that a positive family structure and parental support is necessary to help break the cycle of these kids."
For Adam, the program may be his final hope at keeping out of the juvenile justice system. "I'm not going to do anything more because if they get me for one more thing, then I'm going to end up in juvy ... and if I keep going I know I'm going to end up in jail," Adam said. "I've got friends who have been in there and I'm not going there. That's where the big boys are."
By Jessica Lawrence
10 February 2003