A Secret Police Watchlist Targeting Kids As Young As 9 Should Be Retained, A Justice Review Has Found

    But the policy supporting it should be released to the public.

    A secret watchlist that allows police to target children as young as nine is an “important community safety tool” and should be retained, a parliamentary review of the youth justice system in New South Wales has found.

    The review has also recommended that the policy guiding how police operate the watchlist should be made available to the public.

    The Suspect Targeting Management Plan (STMP) is used by NSW Police to target repeat offenders and people police think might commit crimes in the future. It is a combination of an intelligence tool and a policing program.

    A significant number of people on the watchlist are children — in 2014-15, almost one quarter of the people on the list were under 18. Children as young as nine have been on the list.

    In May, half of the people on the list were Aboriginal, although Aboriginal people make up 2.9% of the NSW population.

    Dr Vicki Sentas, senior lecturer at UNSW Faculty of Law and convenor of Redfern Legal Centre's police powers clinic, told BuzzFeed News children on the list are “subject to repeated police interactions”. Sentas co-authored a landmark report on the STMP published last year.

    Sentas says children on the list are visited at home and stopped on the street: “For some children it can be several times a week over a period of some months. Some individuals are targeted several times a day."

    In cases detailed in Sentas' report, young people were searched by police "on the sole basis that they're on the STMP", with courts later finding some of these searches to be unlawful.

    Sentas says the watchlist “appears to be authorising a systemic approach of arbitrary interference with a person’s everyday life for future crime prevention”.

    The STMP was the subject of criticism during the NSW Parliamentary Committee on Law and Safety’s inquiry into diversionary programs to deter young offenders from being involved in the criminal justice system long-term, which published its report on Thursday. The committee has members from the Coalition, Labor and the Greens.

    Sentas welcomed the committee’s recommendation that the policy be made public. “People on the STMP have a right to know why,” she said. “They don’t at the moment. It’s basic procedural fairness.”

    Samantha Lee, head of police accountability practice at Redfern Legal, also welcomed the recommendation. “But what we really want to see is for those under the age of 18 to be removed from this aggressive policing program, which entrenches young people into the criminal justice system,” she told BuzzFeed News.

    A number of groups who appeared before the committee argued that police should not be able to put children on the watchlist. The committee rejected this suggestion, citing police advice that “a fair percentage” of crimes committed in NSW are committed by people under 18.

    “In addition, only a very small number of the state's youth are actually the subject of an STMP," the committee report stated. "As at 24 May 2018, 70 people 18 years and younger were on an STMP. This indicates STMPs are only being used in respect of young people in a very restricted set of circumstances.”

    Sentas said the committee's failure to recommend excluding children from the list is “wrong and very disappointing".

    “All the evidence says that the STMP could undermine youth diversion and is not appropriate for children.”

    The report conceded that there was no public information evaluating how well the STMP prevents crime. However, it noted “feedback from police [local area commands] that the STMP is an effective crime prevention tool”.

    The committee recommended that NSW Police introduces guidelines about the way in which children on the list are policed, “to limit confrontational practices and language and reduce the risk of unnecessary escalation".

    Earlier this year, NSW Police gave evidence that the youngest person currently on the list was 13 years old.

    NSW Police also gave evidence that children under 12 cannot be put on the watchlist without approval from the assistant commissioner. The committee said this age should be raised to 14.

    Efforts by the Youth Justice Coalition – a network of youth workers, lawyers, policy workers and academics – to obtain the policy supporting the STMP have previously failed, with the New South Wales Civil and Administrative Tribunal finding that as an intelligence tool it could not be published under freedom of information law.

    People on the watchlist cannot currently access their STMP plan and police have not publicly revealed the criteria by which people end up on the watchlist. Some people on the watchlist have not ever been convicted of an offence.

    A number of organisations and people – including the president of the NSW Children’s Court Law Society, the Bar Association and Legal Aid – expressed concerns to the committee about the application of the STMP to children.

    UPDATE: This post has been updated to reflect Redfern Legal's position.