I wrote this opinion piece for UN Youth Australia.
In every state and territory of Australia, a child in Grade 4 can be arrested by police, put in front of a court and sent away to prison. It’s a blight on the law of this country, and it needs to stop.
The age of criminal responsibility in Australia is 10, leading to up to 600 children between the ages of 10 and 13 being sent to prison each year, with a hugely disproportionate 65% of them being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children.
These laws are an affront to the human rights of young people in Australia.
Last year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child set a new standard for the human rights of young people, stating to all UN member states that children under the age of 16 “may not legally be deprived of their liberty.”
The committee’s guidelines set out a new way of criminal justice for young people, focusing on supporting the individual, rather than incarceration. The committee recommended that member states, as a minimum, raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children “should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.” Locking 10-year-olds in prison and away from their family and community is a direct violation of this.
The #RaiseTheAge campaign is a national alliance that is calling for all state, territory and Commonwealth governments to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia to at least 14. They believe that kids belong in classrooms and playgrounds, not in handcuffs, courtrooms or prison cells.
They are campaigning for the Monday 27 July meeting of The Council of Attorneys-General to agree to change these laws and for Australia to live up to its international child rights obligations and raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14.
Youth Justice is a complex and multi-faceted issue. Still, we need to bring a new approach to a system that currently is overly focused on punishment and incarceration.
The 2019 Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations report found that young people in the youth justice system felt part of an inescapable cycle of incarceration and release, with one young person saying that “some staff say ‘see you when you’re back’.”
As is often with issues that impact young people, we can look to young people for the solutions. The UN Youth Representative report found that young people wanted better post-release programs, staff and resources to gain ‘life skills’ and help facilitate transitions back into the community.
The report also spoke of ‘Justice Reinvestment’, which is taking funds which would otherwise be directed towards incarceration and designating them towards improving family and community life with a view of preventing contact with the justice system.
It’s clear that raising the age of incarceration in Australia is a priority, but we must also take a bigger look at how we can fix our entire, broken youth justice system.