Malcolm Baalman – Public Health Association Australia
In this day and age, it seems incomprehensible that primary school aged kids in school years four and five can find themselves locked up in Australia.
Across Australia each year around 500 children under the age of 14 are locked away in cells, endangering their physical and mental health and raising their risk of future incarceration. Close to two thirds of these children are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
Children can make mistakes as they develop, usually due to social factors in households including poverty, mental health issues, and abuse. But compelling children aged as young as 10 into the criminal justice system won’t fix any problems – it will only create bigger problems for them and for our society into the future.
Last year, PHAA and nearly 50 organisations called for the Council of Attorneys-General to raise the minimum age nationally from 10 to 14, without any exceptions. PHAA argued that the decision not to support the change was an abject failure, out of step with other countries and recommendations by health, medical, legal and human rights experts.
While there was no consensus reached amongst Australia’s Attorney-Generals, the ACT has decided to go it alone, responding to widespread criticism both at home and from across the world, including from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and 31 UN member nation states.
The PHAA ACT Branch commends the ACT for showing leadership and breaking ranks, as the first Australian jurisdiction to commit to raising the age, and leading the nation in this long-overdue area of vital reform.
Last week, the ACT Government released a discussion paper, ‘Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility’, to seek public comment before drafting legislation. The public has until 5 August to comment and the ACT hopes to have new legislation in place before the end of the year.
The discussion paper covers four primary areas, Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury explained: should we raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility; decriminalising behaviour of children and young people (addressing their needs rather than involving them in the criminal justice system); victim rights and supports; and technical and legal questions (spent convictions, police powers).
As Mr Rattenbury says, “we have a critical and historic opportunity to change the way we treat vulnerable and marginalised children.”
While a nationally consistent approach would have been preferable, at least in the ACT kids who should be in primary school won’t find themselves caught up in our criminal justice system. Hopefully the ACT’s leadership on this issue will also set an example for other jurisdictions to follow.
It is well documented that the earlier children have contact with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to have a long-term involvement with crime. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 will reduce long term offending and the associated health impacts, and will increase community safety overall. Reforms would give children the support they need to live healthy and productive lives, and make the whole community safer by ensuring young people in the justice system don’t become adult criminals. We can create a system that embraces young people and supports them rather than punishes them.
The ACT Government has also committed $120,000 for an independent review, led by Emeritus Professor Morag McArthur, to identify ways to better support children and young people if the minimum age of criminal responsibility is raised. That review is also due in August.
The organisations – including the ACT Council of Social Services (ACTCOSS) and the ACT Human Rights Commission – noted that the current minimum age breached international human rights laws or international standards, and contributed to the over-representation of Indigenous children in prison.
Progress down this path in the ACT is most welcome news. Also encouraging is whispers out of Western Australia, where we are hopeful of some progress on raising the age of criminal responsibility. We will look to encourage such developments and report as they become more concrete.
The PHAA encourages all other Australian governments to follow the ACT’s lead, and to catch up with the rest of the world by raising the age for children to be drawn into the criminal justice system to a minimum of 14 years.
Photo credit: Kampus Production from Pexels