SPECIAL REPORT: Status quo in youth crime will remain, despite the community's outrage
Just after 7.30pm on Wednesday, a Tropic Now story featuring a letter from a Cairns police officer was going absolutely wild on the web.
The officer’s stark words delivered a rare, powerful insight into frontline policing and highlighted the failure of the system to address the youth crime crisis in the city.
At about the same time our story was being read in thousands of homes across Cairns (and, soon enough, the nation), a masked offender walked into a corner store at Edge Hill brandishing a knife and demanding money.
As if on cue, the armed robbery was a live demonstration of a crime wave the frontline officer had so bravely described in our article.
As the masked offender fled with a stash of cash, our story was on its way to becoming the most shared and most read article in our site’s history. It has since been shared nearly 1700 times on Facebook and momentarily crashed our server due to the volume of traffic.
The timing between the article and the armed robbery was uncanny, but regrettably not surprising – at least not to victims.
Victims like the 28-year-old shop attendant on Wednesday night, who was alone in the store when the robbery took place.
A police report says the attendant was “not physically injured” in the armed robbery, a line that inadvertently hints at the potential harm and shock such an incident might have on a victim’s mental and emotional state.
RESPONSE REFLECTS COMMUNITY OUTRAGE
The unprecedented reach of our article – including being tabled on the floor of State Parliament just hours after it was published, such was its immediate impact - hit a raw nerve in the community for one simple reason: victims of crime have had enough.
They are at their wit’s end, and they are angry. Many of them are so dangerously enraged they are openly threatening vigilante action.
Victims of crime and the community more broadly are saying they do not have the same rights or receive the same consideration as offenders. They believe the balance between the impact on victims and the well-being of offenders is completely out of whack.
The tens of thousands of people who reacted to our article are screaming in unison with a mix of intense frustration and demands for justice. Judging by the response to the article, perception has become the community’s reality: the pendulum has swung too far in favour of youth offenders.
The community feels what the officer wrote in our article: “Victims are left to pick up the pieces as there is zero punishment. Policing our way out of this is too late and a reward for committing offences is disgusting and a f--k you to the victims.”
HEALY: 'OUR APPROACH IS WORKING'
By now, the Queensland Labor Government is no doubt aware of the community’s current fears and concerns about youth crime. But so far they appear tone deaf to it, despite the outrage reaching fever pitch.
Social media has concentrated and amplified their outrage. A proliferation of crime groups on Facebook are home to tens of thousands of members who contribute to a daily torrent of crime news, grainy CCTV footage from home cameras and calls to keep an eye out for stolen cars.
Batting away the community’s concerns and the impact of the officer’s words in our article, Member for Cairns Michael Healy told Tropic Now the system is, in fact, holding young offenders to account.
Just two days earlier, Mr Healy was lambasted on social media for an ill-advised post about the Government’s “successful” youth crime policies.
In the post, Mr Healy said the government was “reducing reoffending”. He highlighted the construction of new youth detention facilities in Brisbane, some 1700kms away from his electorate and our city’s immediate problems.
His attempt to spruik the government’s “half a billion dollars to target Youth Justice” was met with immediate scorn. Many of the people who commented on the post later complained in social media chat groups they had been banned from Mr Healy’s page in a bid by his office to minimise the extent of the negative reaction.
In a very brief interview with Tropic Now on Thursday, which Mr Healy cut short before our reporter was able to ask any questions, he said: “I recognise policing is a very stressful job but I won’t comment on correspondence that doesn’t have a name and that I can’t verify.
"What I will say and that I’m very, very happy to say is the community expects young offenders to be held accountable, which we do. A young person can be remanded in custody to keep the community safe, that’s what the Youth Justice Act provides for. Children can be questioned with an appropriate adult present. There is room at the Cleveland Youth Detention Centre and we’re building more to keep people safe.”
POLICE RESOURCES ARE STRETCHED
Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner for Regional Queensland Paul Taylor has been dealing with issues of youth crime at various levels for decades, included many years living here in Cairns.
In an interview with Tropic Now, Deputy Commissioner Taylor acknowledged the challenges of the current problem.
“There’s no doubt there’s pressure on the organisation in regards to bringing in the level of property crime and particularly juvenile crime down,” he said.
“There is a high demand, there are nights officers go from job to job and we’re working to support them.
"We understand some of the frustration of police and we’re working with them to make life easier, including reducing red tape, introducing better technology and there are additional supports for more and improved resourcing.”
STATUS QUO - AND COMMUNITY CONCERN - WILL REMAIN
In a bid to dig deeper into the issue of youth crime, Tropic Now has tried unsuccessfully to apply to sit in on the Children’s Court with a proviso that no children would be identified.
Our intention was to report – with great care - on the process to punish juvenile offenders after they are arrested. News outlets receive a daily media release from police outlining recent arrests, but no-one outside a handful of people in the legal and justice system is allowed to know what happens next.
We simply wanted to know – as the community does – exactly what type of punishment young offenders are getting for their crimes. Our request was met with a flat out denial.
“Children’s Court is a Closed Court session, and no member of the public can attend,” Acting Deputy Registrar Larissa Furze told Tropic Now. “Whilst we appreciate that names would not be published, there is no procedure available for media to gain access to Closed Court sessions.”
In addition, Tropic Now has also applied to Police Media and the Justice Department for statistics on recent youth crime rates. But we’ve been told it could take up to 28 days to receive a response.
However, we do know the figures on overall property crime, regardless of the age of the perpetrator, paint a clear picture of a problem that is escalating.
73 vehicles have been stolen so far this month and 131 for the year, compared with a total of 66 in January and February 2019. That’s more than double in a shorter period of time.
Rates for robberies, assault, other theft, unlawful entry and other property damage have all increased since about September last year.
What happened at that time to cause such a spike in crime over the past six months?
That’s when the majority of the State Government’s amendments to the Youth Justice Act came into effect, including a relaxation of breach of bail offences.
With Mr Healy and the Government steadfastly confident in their approach to tackling youth crime, the status quo and the legislation will remain.
With a state election due in about 9 months, the community’s outrage will too.