Raise the age!

We applaud the ACT Government for this week being the first jurisdiction to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.

This brings the ACT in line with the United Nations Children’s Rights position. However, the ACT is certainly not the worst offender when it comes to incarcerating children and there is an urgent need for other states and territories to follow suit, especially the NT.

Kids are easy targets and locking them up does enormous damage to their wellbeing and future prospects. We must take a different approach to youth offending.

These are not new problems and fixing them is not rocket science. Schools must be more responsive to the needs of these young people who often have minimal education. Mental and other health problems need to be addressed, family breakdown and violence, peer pressure, financial hardship, bullying and fear are usual factors. 

None of these problems is resolved by incarceration. See here the ABC story of William Tilmouth, one of the Stolen Generations. He was sent to Darwin youth detention centre in 1969.  

It [the criminal justice system] is still a conveyer belt for mainly poor and disadvantaged First Nations people. A conveyer belt from disadvantage to a draconian system and jail.

We need to empower these children and work with their families. And part of that is giving them a chance to mature, they haven’t learned life’s lessons at 10.

William Tilmouth

Last month, the Council of Attorneys General postponed a decision on raising the age. Apparently deferred to 2021 to allow for more work to be done on examining alternatives to imprisonment. However, it is not looking good with the Attorney General saying he was not overly enthusiastic about reform and the system works relatively well… 

Australians need to stand up and care because it is disadvantaged citizens who feel the brunt of this law. We all need to care to make this change.

Justin Mohamed, Victoria’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.

The NT Royal Commission

Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, set up by former Prime Minister Turnbull, reported in November 2017. Its findings were shocking and its 227 recommendations extended to 37 pages.  Recommendation 27.2 was:

Section 38(1) of the Criminal Code Act (NT) be amended to provide that the age of criminal responsibility be 12 years.
Section 83 of the Youth Justice Act (NT) be amended to add a qualifying condition to section 83(1)(I) that youth under the age of 14 years may not be ordered to serve a time of detention, other than where the youth: 

• has been convicted of a serious and violent crime against the person
• presents a serious risk to the community, and
• the sentence is approved by the President of the proposed Children’s Court. 

One year on, little had changed 

In July this year the NT government announced the Don Dale youth detention centre would be rebuilt by 2022, next to the adult Holtze centre. (This is at odds with the Commission’s recommendation that the new centre should not be located on or in close proximity to, adult prison precincts.)

According to the government press release, the main objective was to create more jobs and support Territory business!

By all accounts the NT Government undertaking to deliver on the Commission’s recommendations has largely faded away as the all-too-few champions of reform are trumped by the tough-on-crime majority. See Inside Story

The Murdoch-owned NT News played its usual role in urging tougher penalties and harsher conditions. Public opinion against the reforms and lack of political will meant the few changes that were made were largely rolled back. But Australia-wide Indigenous organisations, the legal profession, and health, education and human rights groups are urging governments to lift the age of criminal responsibility.

The Law Council of Australia held an Indigenous Incarceration webinar two days ago.

Overwhelmingly the panel called on governments to listen to and engage with First Nations communities and agreed that there needed to be systemic and transformative changes to the system if we are going to see any reduction in incarceration rates.

This includes raising the age of criminal responsibility from ten; supporting First Nations-led solutions; and repealing mandatory minimum sentencing.

Dr Fiona Wade, Law Council President 

Facing the facts:

  • 53% of all young people in detention were Indigenous and in the NT it is 96%
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples made up around 3% of the total Australian population in 2019 but about 29% of the nation’s prison population and 58% of the juvenile detention population
  • ~600 Australian children aged 10-13 are locked up each year

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