Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs — Fifty-second Report —
“Punitive Not Protective: When the Mandatory Registration of Young People Is Not Based on Risk”
Resumed from 21 May.
Hon ALISON XAMON: I move —
That the report be noted.
If no-one else wishes to speak, I wish to speak to this excellent report. I commend the Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs for the excellent work it has done on the report titled “Punitive Not Protective: When the Mandatory Registration of Young People Is Not Based on Risk”. I am aware, of course, that the committee undertook this inquiry as a result of petitions that were tabled—it has also been the subject of debate in the chamber— about concerns about how best to deal with the issue of children and young people who engage in sexually inappropriate or even sexually dangerous behaviours. It is a really complex issue. It is a distressing issue that we struggle to grapple with. I need to acknowledge the thoughtful consideration that has gone into this report. I believe the findings and recommendations will prove to hold up to the test of time.
The committee effectively found that the current mechanism for dealing with children or young people who engage in sexually harmful behaviours is not working and that we need to have a radically different approach to working with children in this situation. It found that very often the children themselves have been exposed to situations that are quite sexually harmful. I think it is fair to say that, in many instances, the children themselves are victims of sexually predatory or sexually inappropriate behaviour and that a disproportionate number of them come from situations of great disadvantage and, as such, we require a very different approach to deal with concerns about their behaviour.
It is important to note that the committee found that, unfortunately, children’s ready access to online pornography, for example, has aggravated the risks of children engaging in sexually harmful behaviour. This is an issue that I personally find very distressing. I am aware that far too often children’s exposure to pornography can be the first time they are exposed to the world of sex. As we know, the world of pornography very rarely resembles anything approximating healthy sexual relationships. It is too much to go into here, but it is something that we as a society globally are going to have to grapple with. What do we do about the early dangerous sexualisation of children? We are going to have to look at how we ensure that a whole generation of young children learn about healthy sexual relationships. It also means, unfortunately, that a generation of children increasingly have a poor understanding of the idea of consent and what that means in practice. If children have been exposed to sexual abuse or have some sort of cognitive impairment or anything like that, it is a recipe for disaster.
The questions that this report asks are: When dealing with these children, is it the best thing to put them on a register that is going to effectively follow them for life? Is this the most therapeutic and appropriate way to ensure that these children are able to get the supports that they need and hopefully be able to live healthy lives? What the committee found, I think unsurprisingly—I am not surprised—was that simply engaging in a punitive approach to these children and putting them on the sex offender register, which will follow them for the rest of their life, is not going to work. That is not the best outcome and we need to find a better way to deal with these problematic behaviours.
The first recommendation states —
The Government adopt a scheme which provides government funded treatment and a therapeutically focussed approach within the juvenile justice system for dealing with young people who have exhibited harmful sexual behaviour.
What a sensible, intelligent recommendation, and one that I dearly hope will be taken up by this and any future governments. We know that a disproportionate number of young people in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to sexual abuse and we know that a disproportionate number of them have cognitive impairment. That was borne out by the Telethon Kids Institute research that found that 98 per cent of children in Banksia Hill Detention Centre in particular have some form of cognitive impairment. This is knowledge that we have. Clearly, anything that will help children at that level to address their behaviours will be better for not only them, but also the community as a whole. A failure to intervene at that level to support children who are engaging in sexually inappropriate or harmful behaviours is a failure by everybody. This is an area where I hope we will see some significant progress. We need to do that.
I note that the second recommendation states —
The Director of Public Prosecutions should review all decisions to commence the criminal prosecution of a child or young person for a reportable offence.
Again, I think that is an eminently sensible recommendation. It recognises that there is a lack of consistency in the way that these prosecutions are being pursued, depending on the children’s circumstances. One of the findings in the report states that young people in regional areas are being prosecuted for less serious offences, whereas those in Perth are not. That is nothing to do with justice. That is just to do with often a lack of resources or a lack of capacity to think about how on earth we can provide the services to make sure that these children are supported. I am devastated if a white child in Cottesloe can get therapeutic treatment, but an Aboriginal child in Kalgoorlie cannot. Effectively, what is being found is that children across the state who exhibit offending behaviours are not being treated equally in how we are best responding to that. Low socioeconomic status, a lack of family and community support, neglect and inadequate access to services and rehabilitative options were found to be factors that might deter police from using their discretion to caution rather than charge a young person for an offence. I think that is a devastating indictment of the system. The fact that we are putting children who are already inherently vulnerable in a situation in which they not only do not get the therapeutic assistance that they need, but also then end up in the criminal justice system with a record that will potentially follow them for life is absolutely devastating.
We need to look at making sure that we have culturally appropriate therapeutic programs and appropriate treatment programs. That was one of the committee’s findings. We do not have that now. It is a huge challenge for us as a community and one that will not generate popularity amongst voters. I recognise that. As someone who spends a fair bit of time talking about advocating for Aboriginal offenders and criminal law mentally impaired accused people, I know these are not popular issues within the community, but we need to do this. We should do it because it is the right thing, because we are talking about children and also because, ultimately, if we do not look at a better way of looking after children who engage in inappropriate sexual behaviours, it is, as I said before, the community that will end up paying the price for that.
The committee talked about the need to adopt discretionary options such as a restorative justice solution within the Young Offenders Act. This is where I am going to remind people that we have been waiting for a review of the Young Offenders Act for years. It is something that I have been raising in this place for three and a half years, since I came back in this term.
Hon MARTIN PRITCHARD: I was not going to speak about this report this week, but I know that the chair of the committee is quite keen to speak about it. He is away on urgent parliamentary business, so I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about a discrete area and then look forward to his contribution next week, as I understand it.
Further comments by Hon Martin Pritchard
Hon ALISON XAMON: In the remaining few minutes, I want to reflect on another thoughtful contribution from the honourable member. As usual, we are in screaming agreement. I think that one of the things I particularly want to pick up from this report in the few moments I have left is the issue of mandatory registration. The committee made observations on how utterly hopeless it is to have mandatory registration and that it is counterproductive, particularly when it comes to children. Members are aware that the Greens are vehemently opposed to mandatory anything when it comes to judicial discretion, and for good reason, but never is that more apparent than when we are talking about children. It is never going to be fit for purpose to have a blanket regime of how to deal with often very troubled children who engage in offending behaviours.
The committee found that having mandatory registration for children has the effect of being punitive, and it often results in delays in the criminal justice system, which is not good for anybody. But I think one of the things that I was particularly concerned about was finding 16, which states —
The prospect of mandatory registration can deter families from voluntarily seeking treatment for young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour.
If there is one finding that really highlights how problematic the current regime is, that is it. If someone’s child is troubled and is starting to act out sexually, the one thing that person wants is for their child to get help so that they stop engaging in those behaviours, for the benefit of themselves and the community. The fact is that anything that serves as a barrier to people seeking help is something that we need to vehemently resist. Even if that is the only takeaway that people get from this report, that is absolutely key.
I think it is important to note also that mandatory registration is not consistent with the principles of juvenile justice.
Consideration of report adjourned, pursuant to standing orders.
Progress reported and leave granted to sit again, pursuant to standing orders.