‘Right now, Australian children as young as 10 years old can be arrested by police, hauled before a court and sent to youth prisons’ decries the Raise The Age organisation.
That’s why the ‘Keep Kids in the Community’ coalition was calling on governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years, bringing us into line with other countries. The European average is 14 years.
All the medical evidence tells us that children’s brains are still developing at this age, and early contact with the criminal legal system can cause lifelong harm. Many suffer from cognitive impairment, which has various causes, including foetal alcohol syndrome. Other reasons cited for this change are protection of children’s rights and the limited ability of doli incapax (of 10-14 year olds not knowing their behaviour is wrong, rather than just being mischievous).
In 1998 the Australian Government abolished the principle of doli incapax. The Council of Attorneys-General, consisting of law makers from states, territories and the Commonwealth, had agreed in 2018 it would be appropriate to consider raising the age from 10 to 14 years.
However, in late July 2020, when they met again to discuss the issue, they voted to delay for another year a decision on raising the age of criminal responsibility. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare there were almost 600 children aged 10 to 13 in detention in Australia last financial year. More than 60 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said (SMH July 27, 2020) there were currently 200 young people in NSW youth justice centres, down by a third from five years ago. The youngest offenders in the NSW corrections system were three offenders aged 13.
He expected a decision, one way or another, next year: “Community safety is the most important criteria in all of this… there is a considerable amount of evidence that the best way to treat young offenders is therapeutically to avoid reoffending.”
Reasons for delaying the decision included the need to develop therapeutic strategies, social support and educational programs to facilitate the proposed change. One can only hope these issues will be addressed before the next meeting of the Council in 2021. Meanwhile, community pressure and campaigns need to keep going.
*On 20 August it was reported that the ACT had become the first Australian jurisdiction to agree to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years, in line with UN standards. The resolution by the Legislative Assembly makes it the responsibility of the government that wins the upcoming election in October to consider the legislation.