Calls for Australia to change ‘cruel’ system
A new campaign to stop children as young as 10 being imprisoned in Australia has been launched this week as Black Lives Matter protests focus attention on issues of Indigenous incarceration.
Close to 600 children aged between 10 and 14 are locked away every year in Australia in what some say could be described as a "systemic crime".
Australia has one of the lowest ages for criminal responsibility in the world and calls are growing for the laws to be changed, especially as they disproportionately impact those in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Under current laws a child as young as 10 years old can be convicted of a crime and imprisoned despite evidence their brains may not be mature enough for them to understand the consequences of their actions.
"It's really interesting that you have to be 13 years old to get a Facebook account but can be locked up when you're 10 years old," Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services executive officer Roxanne Moore told news.com.au.
Research shows immaturity can affect a number of areas of cognitive functioning "including impulsivity, reasoning and consequential thinking," a policy statement from the Law Council of Australia notes.
But detaining children also makes them more likely to have further interactions with authorities as they get older.
Studies have shown that those children who have interaction with the justice system between the ages of 10-14, are significantly more likely to experience supervision in their later teens compared to children first supervised at 15-17 years.
"There is therefore evidence to suggest that raising the age of criminal responsibility (particularly to 14 years) has the potential to reduce the likelihood of life-course interaction with the criminal justice system," a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare noted.
It's hoped Australians will support the Raise the Age petition launched this week to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 14, ahead of a meeting of the Council of Attorneys-General in July that is expected to discuss the issue.
This is already the case in many parts of the world including countries in Europe and South America, as well as China. The United Nations committee on the rights of the child has also recommended the age of criminal responsibility for all nations be increased to 14.
Raising the age may also help to change the lives of many Indigenous people.
This is because about 70 per cent of children aged 10-14 in detention are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
"Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 would make a difference for generations of Aboriginal kids and stop the mass incarceration of Aboriginal people," Ms Moore said.
"It's something that government could do right now and they are looking at it, these are the kinds of changes we would really like to see."
The campaign is being supported by the Human Rights Law Centre, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Law Council of Australia, Change the Record, Amnesty International Australia, Australian Medical Association, Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Public Health Association of Australia.
The group is calling for all states, territories and the Commonwealth government to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 so that those who are younger can't be arrested, summoned or found guilty of a criminal offence.
"Criminalising the behaviour of children as young as 10 might in itself be considered a systemic crime. It helps no-one," Public Health Association Australia chief executive officer Terry Slevin said.
"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."
Statistics show many young people are imprisoned for theft and public order offences.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report Youth Justice in Australia 2016-17 the most common principal offences among young people aged 10-17 were:
• theft (36 per cent);
• acts intended to cause injury (16 per cent); and
• illicit drug offences (11 per cent).
"If Australian Governments were serious about reducing the number of Aboriginal people being locked away in prisons each year, then they would take the sane and logical step to ensure Aboriginal children are kept out of this cruel, broken system in the first place," Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Shahleena Musk said.
"Children need care, love and support so they can reach their full potential. Not handcuffs and prisons," she said.
Raise the Age believes that violent behaviour among young children is linked to trauma, neglect or unaddressed mental or physical health problems, and that young offenders are better dealt with using community-led solutions.
One example is the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment project in Bourke, which worked to develop programs with the local community addressing issues such as breaches of bail, outstanding warrants and the need for a learner driver program. It has seen a 38 per cent reduction in charges across the top five juvenile offence categories, among other benefits.
"Locking children up can cause them lifelong harm. Separating Aboriginal children from their families, country and culture just compounds their trauma," Change the Record co-chair Cheryl Axleby said.
"Aboriginal children are being taken from their families and thrown into detention centres at far higher rates than the rest of the population.
"If governments are being honest when they say they want to end the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prisons, and end deaths in custody, then they must raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 and stop the criminalisation of our kids."
Originally published as Calls for Australia to change 'cruel' system