Why Australia is facing calls to stop jailing 10-year-olds

A girl holds prison bars
image captionThe minimum age of criminal responsibility should be 14, the UN says

A growing movement led by a coalition of lawyers, doctors and Aboriginal rights activists is pushing for Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14.Last month the nation’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.So why is this such an issue in Australia? Here’s what you need to know.

The minimum age is low compared to many countries

In Australia a child as young as 10 can be arrested, charged, brought before a court and jailed.The minimum criminal age varies worldwide but Australia’s is low compared to most European nations, for instance. Germany, for one, 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.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.

Indigenous Australians are disproportionately impacted

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.

Presentational grey line
Presentational grey line

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.

Black Lives Matter protests have spurred public support

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 Dujuan Hoosan 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.

Experts say a low criminal age is at odds with research

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 affects of incarcerating vulnerable children, arguing they should be supported with healthcare, not treated as criminals.

But Australia’s top law body is undecided

Australia’s Council of Attorneys-General was expected to announce whether it would raise the age of criminal responsibility in July.But to the disappointment of campaigners it postponed the 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,” New South Wales Attorney-General Mark Speakman told reporters in Sydney last month.He said more work needed to be done to explore how to manage children who commit an offence outside of the criminal justice system, adding “if people want to convince us they can”.

There are many alternatives to jail, say campaigners

Indigenous groups are calling for community-led services that draw on their knowledge to intervene early with vulnerable groups.The Law Council of Australia has spoken of addressing the underlying causes of criminal behaviour such as a lack of housing.

And 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.

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