The ACT government has committed itself to raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 in line with United Nations standards.
In an emblematic victory for active minority government and cross-disciplinary advocacy, Labor this week voted for a Greens motion calling on it to commit to making the change, and in doing so, the ACT became the first of Australia’s eight state and territory governments to break ranks.
The ACT Labor Government, led by Andrew Barr, says it will start planning the transition now, so that the next government (most likely also Labor if the polls are right) can make the change after the October territory election.
Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay said he would still prefer a national approach, which had seemed imminent until July when the state, territory and Commonwealth attorneys general deferred a decision for another year (the deferral came as a disappointment to many in the health and law sectors who have actively and collaboratively campaigned on this).
The Australian Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, the Law Council of Australia, the Public Health Association of Australia and the Australian Medical Association have all urged the government to lift the age at which a child is deemed capable of committing an offence. They argued that Australia’s present uniform age, 10, is one of the lowest in the world and raising the age of criminal responsibility would be based on solid evidence relating to child development and neurology.
The Law Council says that up until at least 14 years old, the behaviour of young people ought to be addressed through support services and appropriate and targeted therapeutic interventions that are proved to be in their best interests. These should not be provided through the criminal justice system.
Treating young people as criminals unfairly targets those who are the most disadvantaged, amounting to “criminalisation of social need”.
Children arrested before the age of 14 are estimated to be three times as likely to reoffend as adults than children arrested after the age of 14. Simply put, the earlier a child enters the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to still be there years later.
The motion by Shane Rattenbury of the ACT Greens listed support from ACT groups including the ACT Human Rights Commission, ACT Council of Social Service, the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services, Gugan Gulwan Youth Aboriginal Corporation, Anglicare NSW South/ACT, and the Youth Coalition of the ACT.
But it didn’t get support from the Liberal Party.
The Human Rights Law Centre says around 9000 children under 14 go through the youth justice system each year. Around 600 go on to be locked up, most in youth detention centres, some in adult jails.
Two thirds are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.
Rattenbury acknowledged the need to set up new programs and develop new frameworks to support young offenders up until the age of 14. It’s why his motion gave the government time.
Ramsay is still hopeful the other governments will be convinced by the evidence, but in the meantime, he is prepared to go it alone.
Further protracted delays in other states and territories are hard to fathom.
As a response to anti-social or behaviour deemed offensive, criminalisation not only harms the life chances of young people but in turn makes our community less safe.
It makes good sense to embrace alternatives to incarceration by investing in diversion programs and prevention that addresses their underlying issues and generates positive pathways that children and young people feel like they can adopt.
There are many interactions between police, corrections and medical and health sectors. One significant way to divert young people from youth justice is to ensure they have positive interactions with the health system.
Toni Hassan is the former media manager at PHAA and works as a public health and communications consultant. She is an adjunct research fellow with the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University in Canberra.