It’s (still) time to raise the age of criminal responsibility

We allowed ourselves the tiniest taste of hope when, on 29 July 2020, Attorneys-General met from around the nation and discussed whether or not to change archaic, damaging laws that allow for the imprisonment of ten-year-old children.

We were buoyed by the hashtags, photographs, editorials and op-eds, the messages of support. Our polling showed that the majority of Australians supported raising the age. Only 7 per cent even knew that a ten-year-old could be sent to prison. When they found out, the majority were appalled.

But the Attorneys-General didn’t raise the age. They didn’t even make a decision not to raise the age. They just kicked the can down the road for another year, never mind the children – most of them Aboriginal – that would continue to languish behind bars because of their inaction.

Twitter buzzed with #RaiseTheAge hashtags, outrage and disbelief. Calls to raise the age filled the news that night. Lawyers condemned governments locking up children for violating international standards. Doctors denounced politicians for their part in traumatising young brains.

The children locked away behind bars stayed put.

Today marks the five-year anniversary of the Northern Territory Royal Commission that exposed the abuse and mistreatment suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection and youth justice systems. Little has changed.

The Royal Commission recommended the immediate closure of Don Dale. It condemned the decommissioned adult prison as not fit for accommodating adults, let alone children as young as ten. Instead, the NT Government is sinking millions of dollars into expanding Don Dale to imprison more children.

The Royal Commission recommended making it easier for children to access bail and diversionary programs to help them stay with family and in the community. Just months ago, the NT Government announced some of the most punitive youth justice laws in the country that restricted bail and limited the Court’s ability to refer children to diversionary programs.

Furthermore, the Royal Commission recommended the NT Government raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility. Children as young as ten are still being arrested, thrown into police vans, and locked away behind bars.

I think about the children I worked with in NT youth prisons. How their lives and those of children like them could be different if one year ago the Council of Attorneys-General had decided to set them free.

It does not have to be this way. There are alternatives all over the country that are changing children’s lives for the better and making our communities safer. From Learning on Country programs in Western Australia, to trauma-informed mentoring in Victoria and wrap-around, culturally safe family supports in the ACT: this is where governments should be investing our resources – not locking tiny children in concrete cells.

Australia is up there with some of the biggest prison spenders in the world. While incarceration rates are falling in other Common Law countries, we are locking people up in a frenzy. This is despite the clear evidence that crime rates in Australia have been trending down for many years now. About a third of the people behind bars have not been convicted of a crime – they are simply waiting for their day in court. About half have one or more disabilities. The number of women behind bars is skyrocketing. The vast majority report being victims of sexual or physical abuse.

And, there is clear empiracle evidence that the earlier a child comes into contact with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to become trapped in the system right through to adulthood. We are setting these kids up to fail.

The average ten-year-old is still small enough to need a car booster seat.

Her little brain is bursting with changes. She is learning to read longer books, and do more complex maths. She is starting to understand abstract concepts and symbols, forming opinions, trying to fit in with peers. Her brain cannot judge how fast a car is moving. She is excitable, easily bored. She acts up.

She could be sent to prison.

When we asked them, in July 2020, more than 50 per cent of Australians thought that we should raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least fourteen. Most agreed that politicians should listen to doctors when writing laws that affect young brains.

Youth prisons are only the tip of Australia’s prison addiction – and the consistent medical advice is to quit. We’ve relied on the health experts to keep us safe during the Covid pandemic, it’s time for us to listen to their advice when it comes to health and safety of some of Australia’s most vulnerable young children.

It’s been one year since the Attorneys-General failed to raise the age. Since then, the ACT has announced its intentions to go at it alone and change the laws to keep ten-year-olds out of prison. The question now, is will other states and territories show the same political courage and take the action that so many Australians, doctors, lawyers and families are calling for and raise the age to at least fourteen?

You can join the campaign and sign our petition.

Sophie Trevitt

Sophie Trevitt is the Executive Officer of Change the Record which is a member of the Raise the Age Coalition, and was a youth lawyer in the Northern Territory. @SophieTrevitt

More by Sophie Trevitt ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays