Jailing children as young as 10 in NSW prisons is adding to the problem of juvenile offenders and  needs to be legislated against, a growing number of campaigners have told Central News.

The Raise the Age initiative is seeking to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 14 and better incorporate restorative justice programmes, community intervention and therapy instead.

They say jailing children at a young age is psychologically damaging, leaves them vulnerable to abuse and increases reoffending rates. Instead they want care-led, early interventions that break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

Angela Yin, from The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) said: “Children are affected in many ways by being criminalised from as young as 10 and it is detrimental to their development and wellbeing which sets them on a path to incarceration as adults, as well as putting them at risk of being abused.”

She added current resourcing is inadequate.

Following Tasmania’s announcement at the beginning of the month to trial raising the age to 14, there have been renewed calls for New South Wales to do the same.

In all Australian jurisdictions, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 which is one of the lowest ages in the world. Children as young as 10 can be arrested, held in custody and charged by police, and sentenced to a supervised order in the community or detention in a youth detention facility.

Children belong in schools and playgrounds, not behind bars. They deserve the opportunity to learn, and yet kids as young as 10 are being subjected to the trauma of arrest and imprisonment.

The Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) said the law disproportionately affected Indigenous children.

Experts say raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 would spare as many as 8,000 young people a year from further harm in the prison system.

Karly Warner, chief executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) said: “Children belong in schools and playgrounds, not behind bars. They deserve the opportunity to learn, and yet kids as young as 10 are being subjected to the trauma of arrest and imprisonment.”

The Sentencing Advisory Council’s report found that in Victoria, young people aged 10 to 14 years have the highest reoffending rates of all ages in the criminal justice system, with more than 80 per cent reoffending at some time, and more than 60 per cent reoffending with an offence against the person.

Australia has been criticised by the UN for having one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility compared to many other developed nations. In 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended 14 years as the minimum age. The latest push to implement change was heard as part of Australia’s UN Universal Periodic Review, where 31 countries recommended that Australia raise the age. There is currently public pressure from the UN for Australian leaders to lift the age from 10 to 14.

Former Attorney-General of Victoria Rob Hulls gave evidence to the Council of Attorneys-General in 2020 on alternatives to incarceration.

Options pointed to the availability of restorative, rehabilitative and tested models for responding to young peoples’ offending and includes the following:

  • Restorative justice: which provides young people with an opportunity to redress harm they have caused and to better understand the experiences of those harmed by their actions.
  • Justice reinvestment: which diverts funds from prisons and into a range of evidence-based interventions within the community that work directly to address the root causes of crime
  • Evidence-based therapeutic programs: that can be targeted towards the very small proportion of young people whose offending is high frequency, serious and ongoing.

Keeping kids out of detention is one important step, but it doesn’t protect them from the broader harm caused by the criminal legal system.

Hulls said a key concern is evidence of the detrimental impact on a child’s development.

The evidence on brain development and cognition suggests young people under the age of 14 have reduced capacity to understand and regulate their own behaviours. Neurobiological evidence also suggests human brains are not fully mature until a person’s early 20s.

Warner believes more must be done to protect children: “Keeping kids out of detention is one important step, but it doesn’t protect them from the broader harm caused by the criminal legal system, it is vital to raise the minimum age of legal responsibility to 14 at the very least, with no exceptions and no carve-outs.”

In March, a NSW budget estimates hearing revealed 293 children aged between 11 and 13 had spent time behind bars in 2021. More than half of these children were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Redfern Legal Service say the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people both perpetuates, and is a result of, marginalisation, enduring disadvantage and systemic injustice. Raising the age of criminal responsibility will have a significant impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and communities.

Warner said raising the age will also help achieve some of the Closing the Gap goals.

“The NSW Government has made a commitment through Closing the Gap to reduce the rate of Aboriginal children and young people in detention. Raising the age of legal responsibility is an evidence-based path to honouring this commitment,” she added.

According to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, up to 70 per cent of 600 kids under 14 detained in Australian jails each year are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are also less likely to be cautioned and often receive harsh sentences for minor offences.

With these concerning statistics, many Indigenous Australian organisations have come together in support of raising the age, by becoming key partners with the change the record campaign.

Reconciliation Australia, an independent not-for profit organisation that promotes and facilitate reconciliation by building relationships, respect and trust between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, told Central News: “We support the aims of the Change the Record campaign and reaffirm earlier calls for governments to do better for our community and raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14”.

Human rights group Amnesty International Australia commissioned research in 2021 that showed most Australians want to raise the age of criminal liability. A petition by Amnesty International to raise the age nationwide has amassed nearly 100,000 signatures.

#RaisetheAge is a national campaign that has been developed by a coalition of legal, medical and social justice organisations, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community owned organisations. The campaign also calls Australians to sign their petition to support the Indigenous community, and those children suffering.

Those who wish to sign the petition can do so by visiting the organisations websites:

Amnesty International: https://action.amnesty.org.au/act-now/raise-the-age

#RaisetheAge: https://www.raisetheage.org.au/

Featured image by Umanoide on Unsplash