Ingrid Johnston, Michael Doyle, Tony Butler
Many Australians would no doubt be shocked to learn that our current laws in every State and Territory allow children as young as 10 years old to be arrested by Police and sentenced to prison by Courts. That’s a primary school child, removed from their family, school and everything familiar to them, and locked in a cell. As a parent, it’s when your own child reaches the age of 10 that the horror of this possibility becomes real.
The criminalisation of the behaviour of children helps no one, instead leads to years stuck in the criminal justice system, and prolonged impacts of the trauma involved, including poor general health, depression, suicidal thoughts and functional limitations.
The earlier a child enters the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to still be there years later. Once you ask the question – why is this child behaving this way? – it’s quickly clear why. The criminal justice system isn’t the right place to respond. Locking up a child won’t speed up their development so that they have the emotional, mental and intellectual maturity to fully understand the impact or consequences of their behaviour. Nor will it allow the kind of supportive and developmentally and culturally appropriate environment and services which may address underlying problems from experiences of trauma, neglect, harm or physical or mental health issues which may be leading the child to those behaviours. Insufficient access to food and stable housing, quality educational opportunities, secure family and community environments, adequate recreation and transportation infrastructure are crucial factors in how and why many children become involved in the criminal justice system, but need good community-based social and health-care services to address, not police and prison cells. The child has problems that they should receive help with – they should not be seen as the problem and put in prison.
This week has seen the official launch of a campaign by a coalition of legal, medical, health and social justice organisations, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled organisations and the PHAA, to change this archaic law. The #RaiseTheAge campaign is calling for all States and Territories to join many other countries globally, and raise this age from 10 to 14 years. This would be in line with everything we know about child brain development and United Nations recommendations. On 27th July 2020, a meeting of the Council of Attorneys-General will have the opportunity to do just that.
The Government is currently in the process of revising the Closing the Gap targets, and proposing for the first time the inclusion of a justice target of reducing the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in detention by as much as 30% according to recent reports. With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people representing almost two-thirds of 10-13 year olds in the youth justice system in 2018-19, raising the age of criminal responsibility would represent a powerful step in the right direction for meeting these new justice targets. This needs to be combined with a significant investment in the health of Indigenous young people to keep them healthy and supported in their own communities.
Public health is all about prevention, and the best way to prevent lifelong harms to a child is to recognise and support their needs. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 is a vitally important way to do so.