Government failing children by refusing to raise criminal age of responsibility, say activists and experts

Australia's attorneys-general say more work is needed before they decide whether to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.

Children as young as 10 will continue to be able to be arrested, charged and detained for at least another year as the nation's top law officials put off a decision on raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Activists, lawyers and health professionals urged Australia's attorneys-general to use a law reform meeting to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

But the council of attorneys-general decided on Monday there was still work to do on what would replace the current system should the age be lifted.

That work isn't expected to be finished until next year, an annoucement that has drawn the ire of Indigenous-led, medical, legal and human rights organisations.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said when that report did come back it would be "crunch time" for a decision.

"There's an in-principle issue about whether you should raise the age of criminal responsibility at all, but if you do you need to know what is the alternative regime," he told reporters in Sydney after the meeting.

"What are the therapeutic interventions, the behavioural interventions, the social support, the educational interventions that offending children need if they're not going to be dealt with by the criminal justice system?"

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

He said NSW was yet to be convinced the age should be raised.

"There is understandable community concern when, for example, 13-year-olds in far north Queensland are alleged to have raped a minor, and understandable community concern that kids may feel they can get away with things if there isn't some criminal sanctions attached," he said.

"There is a significant onus on those who want to make the case for change, that's why this further work has to be done."

Amnesty International Australia (AIA) said nearly 600 children aged between 10 and 13 were put behind bars in one year.

The human rights organisation said two-thirds of imprisoned children are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

"Every day children are trapped in the quicksand of the justice system, is a day longer that they are harmed," AIA's Indigenous Rights Advisor Rodney Dillon said. 

"Attorney-General [Christian] Porter is purposefully dragging his feet on this issue and everyone knows it; it’s time for the states and territories to take up the job of raising the age of criminal responsibility as soon as possible,” he said.

Aboriginal legal and health expert group Change the Record slammed the announcement on Monday and said Indigenous children in some areas are put behind bars at up to 43 times the rate of non-Indigenous children.

“If governments were serious about ending the mass imprisonment of our people, then they should have taken this straight-forward step today to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 years old to 14," Change the Record's Co-Chair Cheryl Axleby said.

The two organisations are among several activist groups, human rights lawyers and health professionals calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised.

Senior lawyer Shahleena Musk at the Human Rights Law Centre said political leaders had showed "complete disregard for Aboriginal lives and the futures of Aboriginal kids in this country" and nothing was stopping state, territory and Commonwealth governments taking action.

"We again call for all state and territory governments to bring Australia in line with international standards and raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years so we can shut the gates of police and prisons cells to Aboriginal children once and for all," Ms Musk said.

The Australian Medical Association said the decision not to raise the age of criminal responsibility went against medical advice.

"By leaving the age of criminal responsibility at the unacceptably low age of 10 years old, we run the risk of further traumatising already disadvantaged and vulnerable children instead of giving them the help and healthcare that they deserve," said AMA President Tony Bartone.

Most Australians are unaware the age of criminal responsibility is 10, a survey from think-tank the Australia Institute revealed.

The United Nations recommends the minimum criminal age of responsibility be 14, but all Australian states and territories have set it at 10 - one of the lowest in the world.

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