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Police and social workers team up to fight youth crime in Cairns

In the backstreets of the Cairns suburb of Mooroobool in far north Queensland, a group of children is walking across a park.

It's approaching 8pm on a school night and the barefoot gaggle of kids, aged between six and nine, are carrying a giant bucket of fried chicken home.

A dark blue four-wheel drive with two men inside pulls up on the kerb to talk to them and they gleefully 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 a police officer and youth justice worker on the beat, building relationships and trying to keep the youngsters, and others, out of the youth justice system.

The Co-Responder program was established in Cairns in 2020 and has clocked up more than 8,500 interactions with young people and their families.

Similar programs are also running in other parts of Queensland including Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and in the South-East, and costs about $8 million a year to run.

Rather than waiting for young people to offend, the program aims to stop crime from happening in the first place by being out and about around the clock looking for children who should be at home or school.

They attend homes to get a feel for the environment in which the children live, shopping centres and parks where children 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 the young people see that the car, you know, they feel safe and they know who we are and what we do," he said. 

"The young people that we've seen tonight, we're helping them get into rugby or whatever referrals that they need to help them or their family. 

"It's positive for us, it's positive for them, they smile and they laugh. 

"It's a win for everyone involved."

A win is exactly what's needed.

More than 930 cars have been reported stolen in the Cairns region so far this year, already eclipsing the yearly 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 the Kuranda Range Road, and crashed it into a pole at Edmonton. 

A 14-year-old passenger is still in hospital with critical injuries.

How should youth crime be addressed?

Youth crime in far north Queensland is a hot political issue.

LNP leader David Crisafulli wants breach of bail to be legislated as an offence.

He said police figures showed there had been a 95 per cent increase in break and enters across Cairns over the past 12 months, from 1,968 offences in the year to July last year to 3,838 this year. 

"What more does the state government have to hear before they start actually listening to what everyday Queenslanders are saying, people are sick and tired of a justice system that doesn't have consequences for actions," Mr Crisafulli said.

"They are sick and tired of the repeat cycle where the same young offenders are committing the same crime. 

"And the only thing that changes is the family whose life is ripped apart."

Minister for Children and Youth Justice Leanne Linard recently visited the far north to address concerns about youth crime.

She said the government would continue to focus on interventions and diversions needed to reduce offending. 

"We have 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 my focus is always what are the interventions and the diversions that are needed to reduce offending." 

Meanwhile, back on the streets of Cairns, Mr Egan says he believes the co-responder program is working, but it's hard to quantify.

"Sometimes we measure it through when we don't see a young person for a period of time, they're back re-engaged with school or in programs," he said.

"But there are results that we do see, which is positive, it keeps us going, wanting to help the next person."

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