Quick Exit

Opinion editorial by Arthur Moses SC and Karly Warner

Published in the Sunday Telegraph 17 March 2024

Stopping offending the key to kids' justice

Youth justice has once again become a politicised issue. Tensions run high when we discuss the best way to keep children and the community safe.

In situations like these, when differing opinions about the best strategy create conflict, it’s helpful to go back to the principles we can all agree on.

Everyone wants less crime. Everyone wants children, regardless of where they come from or their family circumstances, to be safe and have a good start to life. These are fundamental truths that should guide us.

It’s for these reasons that many across civil society, lawyers, police, judges, social and health experts are troubled by the NSW Government’s ill considered changes to bail laws for children.

The evidence demonstrates that incarceration of children increases crime by compounding the trauma vulnerable children have already been through, and giving them an apprenticeship in the criminal world that leads to more serious offending later in life.

While the intentions of the Government may be good, it was a panicked reaction that is going to make it more difficult for children to get bail than for adults. It will lead to more children in custody. This retrograde step ignores decades of evidence on how to reduce youth crime.

“Tougher” bail laws have been tried and failed. Police officers have previously stated that you cannot arrest your way out of social problems. Judicial officers should not have their discretion to grant bail constrained so they become instruments of injustice.

The evidence demonstrates that incarceration of children increases crime by compounding the trauma vulnerable children have already been through, and giving them an apprenticeship in the criminal world that leads to more serious offending later in life. In 2001 former NSW DPP Nicholas Cowdery referred to incarceration as an inefficient and costly way to stop crime. 

The experts who watch this process, day in and day out, do have a better and less costly way forward. It involves giving children the services they need to stay off the streets, and to be engaged in more productive activities like job training, safe social activities in sports and art, and an education that inspires social cohesion.

The answers to solve these issues are known. NSW MPs should implement the reports written by their predecessors which recommend the diversion of children from the criminal justice system. Regrettably there are a minority of MPs seeking opportunistic headlines about being ‘tough on crime’. MPs should focus on securing services for their constituents which include these children so we don’t have offending in the first place.

The experts who watch this process, day in and day out, do have a better and less costly way forward.

But what do we really want as a society? To appear to be tough? Or to reduce crime? Therein lies the answer to this controversial policy topic. We need crime prevention – not measures that actually make the problem worse.

Just ask yourself: if your kid did the wrong thing, what would you want to get them back on track, a program or a prison?


Arthur Moses SC is National Patron of the Justice Reform Initiative and former President of the Law Council of Australia. Karly Warner is CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited and Co-Chair of the National Justice Policy Partnership. 

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