State and territory governments across the country are being urged to follow the lead of the ACT, after the release of its plan to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
In a massive step forward for the state, the ACT has unveiled a roadmap outlining its plan to raise the age of criminal responsibility and keep children out of prison. The report shows that raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility is necessary, achievable, and straightforward.
Presently, children as young as 10 can be imprisoned, arrested, and strip-searched. These laws are in stark contrast to international standards and human rights law, with the median age of criminal responsibility worldwide being 14 years old. Earlier this year, Australia received 250 recommendations from over 120 countries to examine and update its laws so that they are in line with international expectations.
A number of aboriginal, health, legal, and human rights organisations have welcomed the change and urged other states to do the same.
Dozens of organisations have previously called on Attorney-General Michaelia Cash to raise the age of criminal responsibility – and according to 2019 figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, approximately 600 children under the age of 14 across the country are in Australian prisons every year. In 2019-20 alone, 499 children aged between 10 and 13 were imprisoned, 65 percent of whom are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children.
Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of Change the Record, said that “every state and territory government criminalises and imprisons [Indigenous] children at far higher rates than non-Indigenous children”.
“We welcome this step from the ACT government to change these harmful laws, and instead provide support and services to children and their families,” she said.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids bear the brunt of bad policies and bad policing. Our kids suffer when governments build new prisons instead of investing in adequate housing, support in schools and family services. This ACT report shows how governments can do things differently, by supporting our kids to thrive instead of locking them away.”
Priscilla Atkins, chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, echoed a similar sentiment.
“The Australian prison system has been designed to oppress and harm First Nations kids since colonisation. Governments are continually failing to address social injustices and provide our children with culturally safe supports,” she said.
“It is time for every state and territory government to follow the lead of ACT and commit to raising the age of criminal responsibility to change the future of our kids for generations to come.”
The report outlines the findings of a review led by Emeritus Professor Morag McArthur, Aboriginal consulting company Curijo, and Dr Aino Suomi from the Australian National University – which was commissioned by the ACT government to identify alternative models to meet the needs of 10- to 13-year olds once the age is raised to 14.
It brings together evidence from around Australia and around the world about what interventions, programs and services ensure that children and their families get the support they need.
Legal director of the Human Rights Law Centre Ruth Barson said that other Australian governments urgently need to follow suit.
“Ten-year-old children are in the thick of their childhoods. Many still have baby teeth. They should be playing with friends and going to school, not being locked up and put on a path that so often leads to future contact with the criminal justice system,” she said.
“The ACT has bravely laid out a different path: a roadmap to ending this injustice. It’s time for the other states and territories to follow suit.”