Last week, human rights organisations across Australia welcomed the Northern Territory Government’s initial response to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children’s final report, after it accepted the intent and direction of all 227 recommendations.
However, the announcement was also met with a grain of salt; given the Territory also said it would only support half of them ‘in principle’. One of such ‘in principle’ commitments was the promise to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
Following the announcement, Amnesty International’s Indigenous Rights Campaigner, Roxanne Moore, pointed out the NT government must raise the age of criminal responsibility “to 14 years of age, in line with the rest of the world”.
"Currently, Australia locks up kids as young as 10,” Ms Moore reminded her Twitter followers.
In Australia, an average of 600 children under the age of 14 serve sentences in youth detention every year, about 70 per cent of which are Indigenous children. This statistic was discussed during the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children, which recommended elevating the age of criminal responsibility to 12.
The NT royal commission's final report called for a new Children’s Court, the implementation of an early intervention family support program, and a Commission for Children and Young People, under a comprehensive reform program.
The report said these measures were aimed at restoring the "failed detention and child protection systems in the Northern Territory" and recommended that children under 14 should only be jailed for very serious and violent crimes.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also recommends 12 as the absolute minimum age for a child to be charged with a criminal offence.
The median age of criminal responsibility around the world is 14 years of age, as endorsed by international human rights organisations, which base their recommendation on scientific studies showing that, on average, children younger than 14 are not developmentally mature enough to be criminally liable.
Just a day after the NT government issued its response to the inquiry’s recommendations, and the Minister for Territory Families, Dale Wakefield admitted their failure to care, protect and support those who needed it most, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released new data showing that more than three thousand children under 14 face court every year.
The data further confirmed more Indigenous children between 10 and 14 years of age faced court in Australia between 2016 and 2017 than non-Indigenous children — 2,463 versus 1,752, and this is not including figures from Western Australia, where the chances of First Nations children being incarcerated are 52 times higher than their non-Indigenous peers.
Ruth Barson, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that the data speaks volumes about the “diabolical picture” of Australia’s outdated punitive youth justice system.
“Thousands of primary school aged children are getting trapped in the quicksand of the criminal justice system each year. Children belong in playgrounds and classrooms, not in the courts and definitely not in prisons,” Ms Barson said.
In a statement, the Human Rights Law Centre also condemned the fact that “close to 100 ten-year-olds, 290 eleven-year-olds, 775 twelve-year-olds and 1850 thirteen-year-olds are being hauled before the courts rather than being supported with their families, in their schools and in their community".
"100 children who should be in grade four and close to 300 children who should be in grade five, are being drawn into a system that risks harming them for life. Every single state and territory can put an end to this injustice today by raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years,” Ms Barson concluded.
Amnesty International have started a petition calling for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to implement national change. Their aim is to end in-prison abuse "through independent inspectors, set national justice targets to measure progress, raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, increase Indigenous-run support services for families to stay strong and together and support more diversion programs so kids don’t end up in prison".