No time to waste on children's safety (The Mercury Newspaper Talking Point, 16/12/23)

Delays to reforms risk doing more damage, write Adrienne Picone and Patrick Burton.

Tasmanians can be proud of our Government’s commitment to embrace nation-leading reforms in the area of youth justice.

Following the horrific testimony at the Commission of Inquiry, our political representatives have united on the urgent need for reform that genuinely keeps children and young people safe, providing the support and resources they need to put them on the path for a better future.

But goodwill and good intentions are not enough.

The Rockliff Government’s final Youth Justice Blueprint, released this month, lays out a 10 year plan for change with a greater focus on prevention, early intervention and therapeutic, non-prosecutorial responses to challenging or harmful behaviours. The intention is to stop children entering the system, thus protecting children and families from a lifelong journey through the ‘revolving door’ of our criminal justice system, reducing reoffending and improving community safety.

However, 10 years is a long time, particularly when you’re a child, and the time frames for many of these proposed reforms is deeply concerning.

For example, a deadline of July 2029 has been set for raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years, and increasing the minimum age of detention to 16 years. These changes will put Tasmania at the forefront of effective, evidence-based youth justice policy and should be celebrated — but it does not help children today.

Notably, these changes will do nothing to protect the children who are already involved with our youth justice system or detained at Ashley Youth Detention Centre — children who, according to the Commission, are still at risk of significant and serious harm.

We need to be more ambitious, working harder and faster to bring in the changes that will support more children, families and victims. And importantly, we need to do it by working with those who know these children best, through genuine, substantial and ongoing engagement with people who are experts in the community, youth and First Nations sectors.

While the report refers to a ‘whole-of-government approach’, it is not the Government’s problem alone. It belongs also to the community, and so the solutions will be arrived at through consultation with the community and its service providers.

The same goes for the development of the Government’s ‘action plan’ to guide the first few years of its youth justice reforms. These must be practical and timed to reflect the urgency of the situation, and be informed by the experience and expertise of those community organisations who already know, work alongside and support our Tasmanian families and children. We hope the recently announced Community Consultative Committee will be an opportunity for meaningful and effective collaboration.

The reality is we are starting from a long way back. The Government must be transparent about the substantial funding gaps which currently exist, particularly for community-led programs, which evidence shows are extremely effective in reducing contact with the criminal justice system. And we must better protect those children who are currently most vulnerable to experiencing harm, abuse or neglect, responding to the safety risks clearly identified by the Commission.

Alongside tighter time frames, the next Tasmanian Budget must show real dollars for implementing all 191 recommendations from the Commission’s final report, particularly those which will allow our community organisations to expand their engagement with Tasmanian children and families.

It is not enough for Tasmania’s leaders to simply talk-the-talk on a better system for our children and communities. We need to walk-the-talk with funding commitments and concrete investment in community and youth sector organisations, First Nations groups and others that are fundamental to reducing incarceration.

In a report released earlier this year, the Justice Reform Initiative urged the Government to use the $270 million earmarked for a new prison in the state’s north to instead establish a multi-year ‘Breaking the Cycle’ fund for community-led programs, that evidence shows address the drivers of incarceration for adults and children.

The relatively small numbers of children in our youth justice system strengthens the opportunity to do things differently, to be nimble and effective in our approach — but we must have the courage to get out of the historic ‘business as usual’ mindset.

The time to act is now, using the capacity that exists across the community and government sectors, and by using evidence-based models.

Any delay will risk further damaging the lives of children and putting them at risk of lifelong involvement in a system that will not only fail to give them the support they need, but may also subject them to serious harm.

We cannot wait any longer for the change we so desperately need to keep all our Tasmanian children and families safe.

Adrienne Picone is chief executive of the Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS) and Patrick Burton is Tasmanian campaign coordinator for the Justice Reform Initiative.