Legal services are calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14 across Australia, saying the vicious cycle of incarceration among the nation’s most vulnerable must end.
Children as young as 10 are being arrested, charged and detained, but experts say doing so is setting them up for a lifetime in the justice system with almost no way out.
A working group set up by the Council of Attorneys-General and tasked with reviewing the law is expected to discuss if it can reach a national agreement to raise the age when it meets next month.
Advocacy groups and legal services are urging it to lift the age of criminal responsibility to 14, in line with the median global age.
Change the Record is an Aboriginal-led organisation fighting to end mass incarceration of First Nations people.
Executive officer Sophie Trevitt said lifting the age would change the lives of thousands of children.
“These are tiny children who don’t have the capacity to take criminal responsibility for their actions,” she said.
“Most of the time they grow out of behaviour that might have attracted the attention of police, but putting them in prison cells is ultimately extremely harmful for these children, for their families and for the whole community.”
More than 8300 children aged 10 to 13 went through the criminal legal system between 2018 and 2019, while another 573 were in detention.
Indigenous children made up the majority.
Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Shaleena Musk said many of the Aboriginal children she had worked with in the Northern Territory were from disadvantaged backgrounds and often had mental health issues, a disability or were pushed out of school.
“They were kids who were disengaged from society and were in need of help, and were being criminalised and pushed through a system that’s very much designed to control and punish,” she said.
Younger children have a higher likelihood of more serious offending, while losing contact with supportive mechanisms like their family and community, Ms Musk added.
Early criminalisaton also leads to early and preventable death, drug and alcohol misuse, the inability to get or keep a job and broken relationships.
“There are so many other socioeconomic impacts and even health impacts through early criminalisation,” Ms Musk said.
The Larrakia woman wants governments to switch their focus to diversionary and support services that re-engage children with their communities.
But Cheryl Axleby, a Narungga woman and co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, said such services must also be accessible.
“What we see continually is that these Aboriginal positions are being created but they’re being pulled into an institutionalised, mainstream construct of service delivery,” she said.
“We talk about Aboriginal employment and having Aboriginal people reflecting the number of Aboriginal people in the systems, but they’re not allowed to do the job in a culturally appropriate, safe way.”
Ms Axleby said contributing to the slow progress and constant brake on change was racism, and the states and territories’ reliance on federal funding for Aboriginal initiatives, rather than stumping up the money themselves.
“If our people are so over-represented, then why aren’t the resources again, targeted to actually address that issue?” she said.
“It shouldn’t matter what the race is, it’s about dealing with the statistics and the numbers and the issues.”