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Speech on the Strengthening Community Safety Bill 2023

On Wednesday 15 March 2023, I gave my speech on the Government's Speech on the Strengthening Community Safety Bill 2023.

You can read the full speech below, or find the transcript and full video link in the official Queensland Parliament Record of Proceedings (Hansard)

Mr BERKMAN (Maiwar—Grn) (4.32 pm): I will begin my contribution on the so-called Strengthening Community Safety Bill 2023 by calling that title precisely what it is: a misnomer at best and more like a bald-faced lie. Every expert, community service provider and person involved in youth justice who made a submission opposed this bill on the basis that it will lead to more crime—

Mrs GERBER: Mr Speaker, I rise to a point of order. I am drawing your attention to the member for Maiwar's unparliamentary language. I ask him to withdraw.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Krause): I have informed by the Clerk that you have used unparliamentary language. I ask you to withdraw and refrain from using that language in the future.

Mr BERKMAN: I withdraw. All of the people who made submissions on the bill—everyone with useful expertise—made it clear that they opposed it because it will lead to more crime and it is more expensive and harmful than the alternatives that would actually work. The government rushed this bill through the committee inquiry process, allowing just 2½ days for submissions, because they know it does not stand up to scrutiny. It is a baseless, media-driven response that suspends the Human Rights Act on four occasions to deny children their rights, including to the right to criminal proceedings that are age-appropriate and that promote rehabilitation.

It is worth noting that even the government's response to the global COVID-19 pandemic did not require the suspension of the Human Rights Act. The government justifies this on the basis that the bill addresses an urgent so-called 'youth crime crisis', but the evidence does not back this up. The submission from the Queensland Youth Policy Collective points out that the government has misinterpreted data from the Childrens Court annual report. The data indicates that the children in the `serious repeat offender' category, who this bill purports to target, committed fewer offences than in previous years. It also shows that the vast majority of offences committed by children were minor offences.

While reported offences across all ages has trended up slightly over the last few years—not taking into account population growth, mind you—the proportion of offences committed by children has actually fallen. Why do we have a bill urgently targeting 'serious repeat offender' children? We do know that children are more likely to offend in groups, close to home and in visible public spaces. Let's face it: visible offending makes a better media story, a better beat-up.

I absolutely acknowledge that the statistics are little consolation to those who have been traumatised, frightened, injured or otherwise affected by crime. There is no doubt that the majority of people in the community want effective action, and rightly so, but this bill is not effective action. The government has acknowledged that there are other ways to improve community safety that would be less restrictive of human rights. As the Human Rights Commission pointed out in its submission, 'it may be that those options are in fact the only way to achieve the purpose of the bill'.

The government agrees that the bill will lead to more children being incarcerated, and that is really the entire point. In fact, they seem pretty proud of it. Youth prisons are already overcrowded, mostly with children who have not even been sentenced yet. Kids are regularly being locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day or held in adult police watch houses—sometimes for weeks on end. Today the ABC was reporting that a 13-year-old Aboriginal boy was confined to his cell for 14 days straight last October and 22 days in February. He was only allowed out of his cell on five occasions during the intervening 36-day period. He spent 60 days in custody, including six days in adult watch houses in Mareeba and Cairns. All of this was inflicted on a child who was on remand and ultimately released on probation.

The committee in its inquiry on this bill heard of similarly shocking conduct in Queensland watch houses. One submission detailed adult detainees exposing themselves to children detained in watch houses, children being deprived of clothing and underwear, illegal strip searches, young girls being detained in cells with adult men, and young detainees being assaulted by individuals or groups of detainees. Rather than shining some light on this submission, the committee instead chose to bury it. I now table a copy of that submission so that it is at least on the record in this debate.

We are talking about children as young as 10 being exposed to these conditions, because the government still refuses to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14, in accordance with UN standards. The government has an answer to this, though: it is simply going to build more youth prisons. The reason youth prisons are overcrowded is that two years ago this government introduced new laws that lock more children up. Spoiler alert: it did not work!

Countless submissions on the bill pointed out that incarceration is criminogenic. The Australian Lawyers Alliance says that it affects a child's development and reintegration in society, which increases reoffending and entrenches them in the criminal legal system. We know that already. The Caxton Legal Centre says

Imprisonment is a cycle and needs circuit breakers. Increased exposure to imprisonment is not a circuit breaker.

We know that already, too. Look at our own experience in Queensland. We imprison more children than any other Australian state, and where is it getting us? If incarceration works, why does Queensland have a so-called youth crime crisis? Why are approximately 90 per cent of children released from detention alleged to reoffend within 12 months? The reason is that we have not addressed the underlying issues. In fact, this government has made them worse.

I focus a lot on the factors contributing to young people's involvement in the criminal legal system including disengagement from school, exposure to abuse, neurological impairment, problematic substance use, homelessness and inadequate sleep or nutrition. I do not raise these issues to discount the consequences of their actions but because we need to figure out what needs to change in order to stop it happening again. We need an alternative youth justice model of prevention, early intervention and diversion with therapeutic wraparound services for those tiny number of children who continue to display seriously harmful behaviours.

Prevention includes capping rents and building more public housing, growing our public health system, fully funding state schools and expanding free meals programs to give children an incentive to come to school and get those things that might be missing in their home lives. Early intervention includes neurocognitive testing in schools and diversion to therapeutic programs before a child is charged. Diversion includes more funding for First Nations and community-led programs that operate after-hours especially, money for AOD and mental health care and disability support.

How could we afford more of all of these prisons, you ask? Let us not waste the money on more new prisons. It costs around $1,879.90 per day to keep one child in prison in Queensland, and that is excluding the capital costs of building the new prisons in the first place like this government proposes to do twice over now. The government is suspending children's human rights so that it can introduce an even worse version of the LNP's breach of bail policy with this bill. The government is making it a criminal offence for children to breach technical bail conditions like meeting an appointment or a curfew or staying at a particular address. A child whose home is unsafe or violent could be criminalised for leaving. A child who does not make an appointment could be sent back to the watch house. Where is the evidence that this will improve community safety? There is none. The government is also suspending the Human Rights Act to allow a court to declare a child a serious repeat offender. The QLS emphatically opposes this in its submission. It requires the court to determine what a child is likely to do in the future and punish them on that basis. Not only does it breach the Human Rights Act but fundamental legal principles that someone should not be punished for potential future crimes.

The government is also suspending children's human rights to send them straight to prison if they breach any of their conditions while on a community supervision order, which now lasts for up to six months rather than three. One of the fundamental principles of international human rights is that imprisonment should be reserved as a last resort, especially for children. Of course, the LNP is trying to scrap that principle entirely now that Labor has taken away its primary cudgel of breach of bail. But Labor is already chipping away at this principle with these changes to community supervision orders and it undermines it again by expanding the application of the presumption against bail to include burglary and riding as a passenger in a stolen vehicle. Let us just think about that 11-year-old kid who is sitting in the passenger seat when their sibling steals a vehicle. There is now an assumption that that child should be locked up. Again, it is undermined by removing the requirement for police to consider alternatives to arrest if they reasonably suspect a child on bail for a prescribed indictable offence or DV offence has contravened or is contravening a bail condition.

I am at a loss to understand how the government could extend or expand the use of GPS trackers that have already been shown to be ineffective, racist and stigmatising and a waste of money. There is no evidence to expand that failed program. The Caxton Legal Centre and the QLS also point out that increased sentences for theft of a vehicle are wildly out of proportion to the actual damage caused. For example, the penalty for stealing a vehicle at night or with friends or posting about it online will now exceed penalties for unlawful wounding or most sexual assaults. They will not act as a deterrent. These penalties will not deter young children because their brains are not fully developed and they have limited capacity to understand consequences. They act primarily on impulse and opportunity, not on carefully weighed decisions. Even if you only care about community safety and do not give a damn about these kids, you know that this bill will increase offending. Queensland already locks up more kids than any other state. This is a disgraceful piece of legislation and I hope each and every one of these members of the government feel shame when they sit there and vote for it.
(Time expired)


I also made further comments on the bill during the clause-by-clause "consideration in detail". You can read these below or on Hansard:

Clause 5

We obviously oppose each and every clause of this bill, but I need to get to my feet to speak to this one in particular because it is just so disgraceful. It is such a shameful act on the part of this government. It is in fact just plain embarrassing for them. The amount of effort they have had to go to to try to pretend that they are not just straight up picking up the LNP’s homework and copying it in here. Instead, the rhetoric we are getting from them is, ‘The LNP were not even this hard on kids. We’re better at locking up kids than the LNP are.’ If it is not clear to them yet, they have started a race to the bottom that they cannot win. No matter how tough on crime this mob get, we know that the other mob are going to come over the top and do any manner of ghastly things to children because none of them are inclined to listen to the experts, to listen to the evidence about what actually works.

We are talking about kids who are some of the most disadvantaged in our entire state. We are talking about kids who are already struggling without support in their regular daily lives, without the basic necessities of life. The government are proposing to introduce new offences that will pull kids up for technical breaches of their bail conditions. I mentioned this in my second reading speech: what about those kids who might have to leave their homes to escape violent or unsafe situations themselves? They have to suspend the Human Rights Act to get this kind of nonsense through. I think if I heard it correctly we heard from the minister a moment ago the absurd observation that we knowthat this will work because it works for adults. I will stand corrected if he did not say that—

Mr SPEAKER: You will direct your comments through the chair, member.

Mr BERKMAN: Indeed, that is what I thought I was doing. I apologise, Mr Speaker. I will stand corrected if he did not say that, but I think that is what he said. I can scarcely remember a more absurd observation in here—that adults whose brains are fully developed, who can respond to consequences and cause and effect, and he is proposing—

Mr SPEAKER: Member, it is not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. It is ‘the member’ or ‘the minister’, please, in terms of the dignity of the House.

Mr BERKMAN: Indeed. The minister is proposing that adults can respond to this so kids are going to. The minister also said that the truth will set us free. The truth of this is that the experts know better. They know otherwise. They know kids cannot respond to this kind of punitive response. It does not matter what the minister likes to say or what truth he would like to present in the course of this debate, they know that they are running roughshod over the evidence and ignoring the experts.

Clause 14

This is again one of those most egregious clauses that I feel compelled to stand and address. We have been through this before. We have heard from all the experts previously that the use of GPS monitoring devices is useless and it is not going to work. It does not work, it is stigmatising for children and this is one of the most racially divided consequences that we are going to see. As I understand it—and again I will stand to be corrected—three of these monitors have actually been issued by the courts, all three of those to First Nations children. When we moved the disallowance motion in here to try to prevent the subordinate legislation facilitating that last round of so-called reform from the minister, the minister got to his feet and had the temerity to tell me that somehow it was racist of me to use the term ‘tracking devices’. Yet we are back here again watching them introduce an expansion of this provision so even more kids—and predominantly First Nations kids—are going to have GPS monitors strapped to their ankles.

We are now talking about kids as young as 15 years old, kids who are still supposed to be compulsorily attending school. What is that going to do for school attendance? How is that going to benefit them? How is that going to help them reintegrate into the education system and the life that we want to see these kids progress towards?

No matter what the government invests in the non-carceral programs and responses—and it is quite extraordinary to see the government take some steps in that direction while at the same time they are whacking kids harder with the other hand—it will be completely undone by the criminogenic consequences of locking up more kids. Prevention, early intervention, diversion, therapeutic wraparound services, intensive case management—that is what we know works. We know this does not work and yet the minister persists with it. Irrespective of what each and every one of these members might personally think, they will just sit there with their mouth shut and they will vote along the party line, and they are okay with that I suppose. They should sit and feel absolutely ashamed as they do so. How much of their moral compass do they have to trade away to join a party like that?

Mr Sullivan interjected.

Mr BERKMAN: I will take the interjection from the member for Stafford because my God, did we hear him speak earlier. I almost could not hear what he said through the low hum of entitled dynastic politics that oozes—
(Time expired)

Clause 15

I have to address this clause. It is the clearest example of provisions that will land more kids in jail. There is duplicity in presenting this bill while saying that we care about kids and we do not want to see them locked up. Members opposite take direct offence at my suggestion that the government is proudly locking up children, yet that is precisely the purpose of provisions like this. They are entirely laughable. The demeanour in the chamber—we are talking about laws that have
real consequences for children’s lives. The government is proudly locking up more kids.

No-one spoke against the bill. The member for Stafford wants me to note that everyone spoke on the bill. Who spoke against it? Not one of them. It is disgraceful. It is a joke to them—the jocularity of it all: ‘We take it very seriously. We put on our stern faces when we are on the camera and then we will have a good old chuckle behind the scenes.’ When the division bells are ringing, it is hilarious. It is a joke. You should be absolutely ashamed of yourselves.

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