In the lanes of the Cairns suburb of Mooroobool in Far North Queensland, a group of children walk through a park.
It’s approaching 8 p.m. on a school night and the group of barefoot children, aged six to nine, bring home a giant bucket of fried chicken.
A dark blue 4×4 with two men inside pulls up on the sidewalk to talk to them and they happily bounce into the back seat of the car.
It sounds like a suspicious scenario, but the occupants of this car have only good intentions.
It’s about a bustling police officer and youth justice worker, building relationships and trying to keep young people, and others, out of the youth justice system.
The Co-Responder program was established in Cairns in 2020 and has recorded over 8,500 interactions with young people and their families.
Similar programs are also running in other parts of Queensland, including Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and the South East, and cost around $8 million a year.
Rather than waiting for young people to commit an offence, the program aims to prevent crime from happening in the first place by being around the clock on the lookout for children who should be at home or at school.
They frequent homes to get a sense of the environment the kids live in, malls and parks where kids are known to hang out, as well as the watch house.
Tonight, youth justice worker Matt Egan is on the road.
He says the distinctive car, with elaborate Indigenous artwork, helps.
“When young people see this car, you know, they feel safe and they know who we are and what we do,” he said.
“The youngsters we’ve seen tonight, we’re helping them get into rugby or whatever credentials they need to help them or their families.
“It’s positive for us, it’s positive for them, they’re smiling and they’re laughing.
“It’s a win for everyone involved.”
A win is exactly what is needed.
More than 930 cars have been reported stolen in the Cairns area so far this year, already eclipsing the annual record set in 2021.
In February, a 14-year-old boy was killed when an allegedly stolen car he was a passenger in crashed into a tree at high speed.
More recently, a 13-year-old girl was charged after she allegedly stole a car, drove it down Kuranda Range Road and smashed it into a pole in Edmonton.
A 14-year-old passenger remains in hospital with serious injuries.
How to fight against juvenile delinquency?
Youth crime in Far North Queensland is a hot political issue.
LNP leader David Crisafulli wants bail breaches to be criminalized by law.
He said police figures showed there had been a 95 per cent increase in break and enters in Cairns over the past 12 months, from 1,968 breaches in the year to July last year to 3,838 this year.
“What more does the state government need to hear before they start listening to what the people of Queensland are saying every day, people are tired of a justice system that has no consequences on equities,” Crisafulli said.
“They are tired of the repeated cycle where the same young offenders commit the same crime.
“And the only thing that changes is the family whose life is torn apart.”
Child and Youth Justice Minister Leanne Linard recently traveled to the Far North to address concerns about youth crime.
She said the government would continue to focus on interventions and diversions needed to reduce crime.
“We heard loud and clear that the community here is concerned,” Ms. Linard said.
“We need strong and accountable systems to hold young people to account, but I always focus on the interventions and diversions needed to reduce delinquency.”
Meanwhile, back on the streets of Cairns, Mr Egan says he thinks the co-responsor scheme is working, but is hard to quantify.
“Sometimes we measure it when we don’t see a young person for a while, they’re back in school or in programs,” he said.
“But there are results that we see, which is positive, it keeps us going, wanting to help the next person.”