Kids in cells

17 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020, Aboriginal Issues,

The age of criminal responsibility in Australia will remain at ten after the nation’s Attorneys-General failed to raise the age.

In July, the Council of Attorneys-General (CAG) failed to commit to raising the age of legal responsibility from ten to 14. The decision leaves Australia out of step with the rest of the world, at odds with social and medical research, and out of touch with community expectations. In response, a group of NSW-based organisations joined together to condemn the decision and call for urgent action.

“Locking up ten-year-olds is harmful, counter-productive, contrary to evidence and unjust. It is very disappointing that state and territory governments have not seized this opportunity to act,” said Jonathon Hunyor of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “The first commitment we need is to stop doing harm. The second is to work with experts and the community — especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities — to develop the alternatives we know exist. We will continue to advocate for a system that delivers for the community, with a minimum age of legal responsibility of at least 14.”

A national alliance — called Raise the Age — was formed to highlight the harm caused by forcing children into the criminal legal system. However, despite a vigorous campaign, the CAG deferred the decision to raise the age for at least another 12 months. This means Australian governments will continue to put kids as young as ten years old in prison. And — accounting for around 70 percent of children aged ten to 13 in detention nationally — it will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who will continue to be disproportionately impacted.

“We know through our work that Aboriginal children as young as ten are targeted and taken into custody, at risk of being taken to a barbed wire facility, strip searched on entry, given limited access to peers, teachers and supports, and put in a concrete cell,” said Sarah Hopkins, a solicitor at the Aboriginal Legal Service. “Locking up children goes against the evidence and public opinion and is the exact opposite of what Aboriginal communities are asking for when it comes to supporting young people.”

Hopkins added: “In Bourke, Moree, Mount Druitt and other places across NSW, Aboriginal young people are engaging with and exploring community- led justice reinvestment initiatives as a way to build stronger futures and avoid negative contact with the criminal justice system. The money wasted locking kids up would be much better spent supporting these community-led solutions.”

Researched released by the Australia Institute and Change The Record shows that the majority of people surveyed support raising the age to at least 14. And the evidence is clear: the earlier a young person is forced into the criminal legal system, the more likely they are to become caught in the quicksand of the system. Indeed, research conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2019 showed 94 percent of ten to 13-year-olds incarcerated return to sentenced supervision within 12 months.

Raise the Age advocates will continue to lobby the NSW government to focus its priorities on providing appropriate services and supports to help children to grow, learn and flourish — rather than for them to be handcuffed and locked away in prison cells. “Every child deserves to be healthy and to reach their potential. Governments could immediately stop forcing kids into the criminal justice system and instead ensure we’re supporting kids to thrive in community and culture,” said Karly Warner, Aboriginal Legal Service CEO. “The Council of Attorneys-General had a historic opportunity to raise the age, but they failed to act. We don’t lack solutions, our politicians lack political will.”