Call to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility

boy leaping in the air

Across Australia a child as young as 10 can be locked up in detention for breaking the law. Time in detention is meant to ‘teach them a lesson’ and to change their criminal behaviours, but all the evidence tells us detention does nothing to deter the child from committing future crimes. In fact, the younger the child is to have contact with youth justice, the higher the chances they have of further offending and starting on the path to a life-long involvement in the criminal justice system.

Last financial year, 51 individual children and young people aged between 10 and 13 were admitted to the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC). They were admitted a total of 131 times, meaning that on average, each was detained at the centre more than twice. It is important to note most children held in the AYTC have not even been convicted of committing a crime.

This raises a significant concern that these young children are not getting the right support they need to address their offending behaviours, both in detention and out in the community. Studies show that to help rehabilitate these young children they need access to family, culture, education, support for individual disabilities, and opportunities to promote healing from past trauma that many of this cohort have experienced.

There is a growing momentum in Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14. This is supported by the Australian and New Zealand Children’s Commissioners and Guardians and backed up by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child who late last year called for Australia to raise the minimum age. The just released documentary, In My Blood It Runs, is also calling for change.

The Council of Attorneys General has set up a working group looking into the age of criminal responsibility. Last month our office provided feedback into the review, urging the working group to raise the minimum age to 14 as we believe the current practices do not provide the best outcomes for these vulnerable and disadvantaged young children.

Outlined in our submission we stated that the number of children detained disproportionately affects Aboriginal children (for example, in SA during 2017-18, there were 37 Aboriginal 10-13 year olds detained compared to 17 non-Aboriginal 10-13 year olds).

Children with a disability and those in care also made up a disproportionate number of children detained. We know that in 2017-18, almost a quarter of those detained in the AYTC were in care at the time of their admission. What we don’t know is how many of those young people come from a residential or commercial care environment – this is something we will address in our next dual status paper (to be out in the coming months).

In the meantime, we are urging change to protect the rights of these vulnerable young children and to prevent them from entering the youth justice system in the first place.

You can read our full submission to the working group.

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