Plea for Indigenous kids: 10 too young for jail

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Save the Children Australia is among a host of organisations urging the federal government to raise the age of criminal responsibility. By Suzie Fitzgerald.

The current age of criminal responsibility is so low that its damaging Indigenous youth, Save the Children Australia says.

‘‘Locking up kids under the age of 14 disproportionately harms those who are already disadvantaged, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,’’ said Save the Children spokesman Evan Schuurman.

The age of criminal responsibility is the age below which a child is deemed incapable of having committed a criminal offence. In Australia it is 10 – the UN last year asked Australia to raise it to 14, more in keeping with other developed countries.

Save the Children advocates more early intervention support in Aboriginal communities.

‘’Save the Children runs preventive and early intervention initiatives in every state of Australia,’’ said Mr Schuurman, who is head of media at the charity.

Jesuit Social Services strategic communications manager Andrew Yule also said that the current age of 10 is unsuitable as a criminal age of responsibility.

‘’In 2017-18, 601 children aged 10, 11, 12 and 13 were locked up across Australia – 69 per cent of them were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander,’’ Mr Yule said.

‘‘All of them could have been responded to more effectively by understanding the drivers of their behaviour and working with them in an age appropriate and culturally appropriate way to address their challenges.’’

In September 2019, representing the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child, committee co-rapporteur Clarence Nelson followed up the call to raise the age of criminal responsibility, asking the Australian Government if they had made a change.

Australia’s Attorney-Generals are doing a review – submissions closed in February – and were due to meet in June.

The Australian Medical Association and Law Council of Australia released a joint statement saying that jailing children as young as 10 was a ‘’national tragedy”.

Law Council President Arthur Moses SC said that raising the age would lead to less discrimination against disadvantaged Australians.

‘’Current laws discriminate against children from Indigenous and low socio-economic backgrounds. Most of the children are not serious offenders and unnecessary incarceration may lead to subsequent reoffending,’’ Mr Moses SC said.

In 2019, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s youth justice report found that although less than 5 per cent of Australian teenagers are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, they make up almost half of the people in youth justice centres.

Swinburne University Professor of social work Jenny Martin said the high detention rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth was “a travesty”.

‘’A lot of the incarceration of Indigenous youth really shouldn’t be happening,’’ Professor Martin said.

She said Australia’s indigenous communities need more support from the government, rather than incarceration.

There is a big discrepancy in incarceration rates in Australia, Amnesty International reported in 2015.

‘’Across Australia, young Indigenous people are 24 times more likely to be locked up.’’