'Prison is no place for a child': Australia to discuss raising the age of criminal responsibility

Despite repeated campaigns against it, Australia still puts children as young as 10 behind bars. But pressure is growing to raise the age of criminal responsibility with a key meeting on Monday to discuss the issue.

Keenan Mundine

Keenan Mundine has been in the prison system and says it is no place for a child. Source: Supplied

Keenan Mundine is 33 and has spent almost half his life in and out of prison.

The Wakka Wakka and Birpai man grew up on the Block in Sydney’s Redfern at a time he says the community was suffering. 

“Although we had a lot of family, a lot of mob and a lot of love and support, there was a lot of unemployment, violence, there was a strong police presence,” he told SBS News.

“I was exposed to a lot of things no child should be exposed to.”

He lost both his parents by the age of seven as they each "battled their own demons". 

Keenan Mundine
Keenan Mundine lost both his parents by the time he was seven. Source: Supplied

“There was always that little boy in me that just wanted to be safe that wanted food in the fridge, that wanted electricity on, that wanted a family,” he said.   

But he was removed from his family and community and by the age of 14, was arrested for stealing. 

“That was the beginning of my lengthy battle with crime and drugs and mental health, and it kept me in that vicious cycle for more than half of my life.” 

In Australia, children as young as 10 can be put in detention and it's a policy that disproportionately impacts Indigenous children. 

Australia has been criticised by the UN for having one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility compared to many other developed nations and public pressure is growing for the nation’s leaders to lift the age from 10 to 14.

The Council of Attorneys-General agreed to examine whether to raise Australia's age of criminal responsibility in 2018 and are set to review the issue at a meeting on Monday with state and federal input. 

Minimum age of criminal responsibility around the world.
Minimum age of criminal responsibility around the world. Source: SBS News

Noongar woman Roxanne Moore from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services says Indigenous children are criminalised at much higher rates than non-Indigenous children. 

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids are being criminalised for things like stealing a chocolate frog, or bread. We know that's related to the disadvantage our kids experience and it's the vulnerable, really young children, that are getting trapped in the quicksand of the justice system,” she said. 

There were almost 600 children aged 10 to 13 in detention from 2018-19 according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. More than 60 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. 

The rate of imprisonment of Indigenous young people in the Northern Territory is 43 times the rate of non-Indigenous children and 17 times the rate nationally, according to new analysis from the Sentencing Advisory Council of Victoria.

Larrakia woman Shahleena Musk, a senior lawyer from the Human Rights Law Centre, said “it's not about Aboriginal kids out there committing more crimes".

"There's systemic factors, even bias and discrimination, in the application of the system.”

"Rather than responding by police and prisons, we can actually address health, disability, poverty, housing and stability. We can focus on building these up, rather than breaking them down.”   

Dr Mick Creati is a paediatrician and spokesperson for the Royal Australia College of Physicians. He says incarcerating children at the age of 10 is damaging and the medical evidence backs it up.

“The latest neuroscience shows clearly that the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 years.”

And in many cases, incarcerated children are already battling mental health issues, pre-existing trauma or in some cases, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder

"We have a clear choice of whether we see these kids as vulnerable or as criminal,” Dr Creati said.

Ms Moore says once kids are detained in youth detention, it can often mean they stay on that path.

“Once kids come into the justice system at an early age they are far more likely to be locked up as a result so it can be a life sentence,” she said.

But there are solutions.

Mr Mundine has turned his life around since his time in and out of prison to provide a lifeline that was never there for him. 

He and his wife, Wiradjuri woman Carly Stanley, now run Deadly Connections, an Aboriginal-led non-profit harnessing the lived experience of First Nations people. 

It aims to break the cycle of disadvantage and trauma by directly addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the child protection and justice systems. 

“The solutions need to come from our community and not from the government because it hasn’t worked,” Ms Stanley said.  

“Locking children up does not work and we'd love to have resources to provide them with an alternative."  

“A feed, a game and someone to talk to - sometimes that’s all they need.” 

The couple are backing the national Raise the Age campaign to see the age of criminal responsibility in Australia raised to 14. 

The campaign is also backed by a coalition of legal, medical and social justice organisations including the Law Council of Australia and the Australia Medical Association.  

It’s an issue Mr Mundine addressed at the United Nations in Geneva in 2018. 

“If you give a 10 to 14-year-old a criminal record that stays with them for the rest of their life, what future are we setting for young people if we're going to imprison them and convict them at such a young age?” he said. 

“I can tell what future they will have; one that is dependent on government benefits and social housing or a life of crime and drugs.” 

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

"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."

But the Council of Attorneys-General "noted that there is strong interest in the review of the age of criminal responsibility, and recognise the importance of the views, knowledge and expertise of interested stakeholders and individuals". 

Ms Musk says it’s a crucial reform that will reduce Indigenous youth incarceration.  

“It is a crucial reform to stop the criminalisation and harm of Aboriginal kids. We need to stop prison and police cells being the response to at-risk, vulnerable kids,” she said. 

And having been there, it's a goal Mundine is committed to achieving.

“We can heal together and we can heal these young people,” he said.

“Let them grow up to be whoever they want to be, not tell them who they can be or who they can't be.”

7 min read
Published 26 July 2020 at 8:40am
By Nakari Thorpe