Ingrid Johnston and Michael Doyle
Recently the PHAA was pleased to join with the Raise the Age Coalition in congratulating the ACT Government for committing to raising the age of criminal responsibility during this term in office. This very welcome move has been long awaited by the sector, and is especially important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are so disgracefully overrepresented in the criminal justice system compared with non-Indigenous children. 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, there is much to be gained by actually addressing the needs of these children, rather than criminalising them.
The needs are multiple and complex, with entering the criminal justice system being far from the first sign that support is needed. Indigenous young people are 17 times as likely as non-Indigenous youth to have been in both the child protection and youth justice systems, and for 4 in 5 of them, it was the child protection system they experienced first. This is especially the case for younger children. Over 7 in 10 of those aged 10-13 at their first contact with youth justice supervision had received child protection services in the previous 5 years.
But once in the criminal justice system, it’s difficult to stay out, especially if you are really young. The earlier a child enters the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to still be there years later. Over 90% of children who are locked up for the first time at 10-13 years of age, are sentenced again later on. The current system is not helping these children, it’s failing them. The child has problems that they should receive help with – they should not be seen as the problem and put in prison.
The move by the ACT Government follows a review by the Council of Attorneys-General on the age of criminal responsibility. The report for the review was discussed at a meeting of the Council in July this year, but no decision was made, and neither the submissions to the review, or the report arising from it have been publicly released. PHAA, through the Raise the Age Coalition, recently wrote to the Council urging that these be made public so that we can get a better understanding of why decisions to fix the system are not progressing. The ACT is to be congratulated for committing to make the move independently, while the national Council dithers.
An important detail though, is that the ACT Government’s commitment does not stipulate whether they will raise the age to 12 or 14 years. This is a really important distinction. While the numbers of 10 and 11 year olds in the system are low enough that this change would be easier to implement, it would not go far enough to meet the scientific evidence of where the age of criminal responsibility should be. 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. New ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury has indicated “My intent is to go to 14”. The ACT Government must be held to this.
It will require significant changes to the systems which are supposed to support children’s needs, which will not be easy, but that’s exactly the point. The statistics clearly show that what’s happening right now isn’t working. It has to change, and with more than just a tinkering at the edges. Raising the age 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. Parents need to be better supported so that these children don’t end up in the child protection system. Children need to be better supported to be able to engage with their education. 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. The Justice Reinvestment approach, which has demonstrated positive outcomes in Australia, puts this into practice through using cost savings from the justice system to invest in community programs to improve social and justice outcomes.
Prevention means that the age of criminal responsibility must be raised from 10 to 14. The ACT government has made a good start. As World Children’s Day approaches on 20 November, it’s time for all jurisdictions to jump on board.