Advocates disappointed by refusal to lift age of criminal responsibility

(L-R) Ashlee Kearney, Cheryl Axleby & Tammy Solonec are seen holding a teddy in front of 603 teddy bears behind bars representing Australian kids in jail. Source: AAP

Advocates say they are disappointed with the refusal by Australia's attorneys-general meeting in Adelaide to decide to lift the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.

The attorney-generals from Australia's state and territories have decided not to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 after discussing the issue at a meeting in Adelaide on Friday. 

Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter says he is confident the current system is working "relatively well" and adds that he is "not overly enthusiastic" about the proposal to life the age.

Up to 70 per cent of 600 kids under 14 detained in Australian jails each year are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

'Act with speed'

The Law Council of Australia says the position of Australia's attorneys-general is "troubling" and fails to recognise the urgent need to act. 

"It is troubling and of concern that the Attorneys have not been able to act expeditiously to make a decisive determination to act together to raise the minimum age when the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory recommended the age should be raised in 2017," president Arthur Moses said.

"The evidence is clear: jailing children has a detrimental impact. It does not make our country safe but exacerbates the problem. These are not new concepts.

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"I urge the Attorneys to not put this on the back burner but act with speed – the lives of children depend on their actions." 

Julie Edwards, CEO of Jesuit Social Services, said advocates had been hoping for a positive outcome from Friday's meeting of attorneys-general. 

"The evidence is in, the neurological evidence is in, the social evidence is in - and yet we have failed to take this step. So it is very disappointing," she said.

"We need to divert young people into a better pathway. Not draw them into a place that is going to reinforce that offending behaviour."

Appropriate to jail kids under 14 in some instances: Porter

Mr Porter said ultimately the issue would be one for public debate, following consultation with stakeholder groups and experts in criminal justice.

"There are a number of ways in which reform to change the age of criminal responsibility could be achieved," he said.

"It might be to lift the age up to 14 with no exceptions. In other jurisdictions, they make exceptions for very serious criminal offences.

"But in my personal observation, historically there have been instances where it has been appropriate to prosecute people who have been under the age of 14 for very serious offences."

Mr Porter said such prosecutions would depend on it being established the offender had the necessary mental capacity to understand the crime committed was both morally wrong and contrary to the law.

Calls for more resources to help kids, families at risk

Ahead of Friday's meeting, a coalition of groups under the Change the Record banner placed more than 600 teddy bears on the steps of parliament house in Adelaide to acknowledge the number of young children locked up across the country on any given night.

Spokeswoman Cheryl Axelby said more money needed to be spent on support programs to assist children and families at risk.

"The biggest issue that we have is the criminalisation of families living in poverty," Ms Axelby said.

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6 November: Former inmate shares her experience of disability in the criminal justice system

"It's about time we invested taxpayers' money at the front end instead of building more prisons and more youth detention centres where we're not actually creating stronger, resilient Australians; we're actually creating more traumatised and broken souls."

The Australian Medical Association changed its official position in March to back calls to lift the age.

AMA President Dr Tony Bartone said members of the organisation believed Australia should follow international best practice on the issue.

“Criminalising the behaviour of young and vulnerable children creates a vicious cycle of disadvantage. and forces children to become entrenched in the criminal justice system.

“The AMA wants the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments to support developmentally and culturally appropriate health, education, and rehabilitative-based alternatives to the criminal justice system." 

With additional reporting from Evan Young, AAP 

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