A growing movement led by a coalition of lawyers, doctors and Aboriginal rights activists is pushing for Australian government to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14.
A child as young as 10 can be arrested, charged, brought before a court and jailed in Australia. The minimum age is low compared to many countries.
Minimum criminal age varies worldwide but Australia’s is low compared to most European nations.
Germany sets the age of criminal responsibility at 14, while the age is 16 in Portugal and 18 in Luxembourg.
England and Wales also set a minimum criminal age of 10, but like Australia they fall short of UN standards.
Last month Australia’s top law officials deferred a long-awaited decision on raising the age until 2021, saying they needed more time to explore alternatives to incarceration.
But on Thursday the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) voted to increase the age to 14 – the first jurisdiction to edge towards changing the law – a step campaigners hope they’ll take and the rest of the country will follow.
There were almost 600 children aged 10 to 13 in detention in Australia in 2018-19, data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows.
And more than 65% of them were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children. Indigenous people make up just 3% of Australia’s total population across all age groups.
Another analysis from the Sentencing Advisory Council of Victoria, published this year, showed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are jailed at a rate 17 times higher than non-Indigenous children.
In the Northern Territory, that rate soars to 43 times higher.
In 2019 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended all countries increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years.
For years, a broad base of people have called for the law to change. In June, they launched the #RaiseTheAge coalition to bring together voices ahead of the Council of Attorneys-General meeting.
Pubic support was galvanised by the Black Lives Matter protests that started in the US and swept across the world earlier this year.
In Australia it has renewed calls to end black deaths in custody and address racial inequality.
July research from the Australia Institute, a think-tank, and Change the Record, an Aboriginal-led justice coalition, suggested most Australians supported increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years or higher.
The world also paid attention last year when a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy addressed the UN Human Rights Council.
“I want adults to stop putting 10-year-old kids in jail,” said DujuanHoosan in Geneva, describing his own struggles in adapting to the Australian school system and how Aboriginal-led education could help keep children out of jail.
Legal groups have long said locking up children doesn’t reduce crime and that young people drawn into the criminal justice system are more likely to face a future behind bars.
The country’s medical establishment has also taken a clear position, supporting raising the age of criminal responsibility from a health perspective.
They warn of the damaging effects of incarcerating vulnerable children, arguing they should be supported with healthcare, not treated as criminals.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has said the focus should be on better services, such as in mental health, to support children and parents who may face drug or alcohol issues.
“Locking up children doesn’t keep kids or the community any safer, and has lifelong damaging consequences for a child’s health and development,” said Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of Change the Record. (Source: BBC)