Spotlight turns on High Risk Youth Court

TOWNSVILLE'S High Risk Youth Court was introduced four years ago, but the effectiveness of the one-of-a-kind program has never been assessed.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice and Attorney-General told the Townsville Bulletin the program had never undergone formal evaluation.

Top Queensland criminal lawyer Bill Potts said it was critical the million-dollar program faced rigorous evaluation to ensure it met key requirements and, if needed, be amended.

"Just as I would promote laws based on evidence, it is very important for initiatives such as this program also to be evaluated, tested and revised to ensure that it is meeting its objectives and delivering a safer Townsville," he said.The court received a positive response from the legal fraternity as a whole when it was introduced in January 2017 as part of a plan to combat growing youth crime concerns.

At the time, then Queensland Law Society president Christine Smyth said the court-led initiative was a step in the right direction and represented a united approach between police, the court and the community to deal with factors driving youth crime.

Mr Potts said the specialist court was not afforded any additional powers but was designed to ensure children who repeatedly found themselves before a magistrate did not slip through the cracks.

Police find and arrest two alleged juvenile offenders hiding in bushland south of Townsville near Cape Cleveland. Picture: Shae Beplate.
Police find and arrest two alleged juvenile offenders hiding in bushland south of Townsville near Cape Cleveland. Picture: Shae Beplate.

"The court is often seen to (have the) purpose of crime and punishment but the court also has a role in therapeutic jurisprudence," he said.

"Rather than concentrating just on crime or its effect (it) concentrates on the causes of crime and eliminates the criminogenic needs of the people committing them."

In its first year, 16 children were referred to the specialist court. This number jumped to 39 in 2018-19 and 59 children in 2019-20.

Bill Potts. Pic Annette Dew
Bill Potts. Pic Annette Dew

Mr Potts said while evidence was needed to demonstrate the specialist court system was effective he said he thought on principal it was a "very good attempt" by the courts to address the social issues including addiction, intergenerational poverty and cultural disconnection which led to crime. "It is time to evaluate, measure and if necessary adjust the court, this may include better resources or greater powers, to make sure these kids don't end up going through the revolving door of the jail system," he said

In 2019-20 the State Government committed $3.3m over four years to support the continuation of the High Risk Youth Court and address recommendations from Townsville's Voice: Local Solutions to Address Youth Crime report.

When they were introduced academics dubbed the High Risk Youth Court and other youth justice initiatives in Townsville as "cutting-edge programs" with the potential to change the way the criminal justice system operated. But, without any effort from the government to review their effectiveness the question remains: have they made a difference?

Originally published as Spotlight turns on High Risk Youth Court