The Law Council of Australia is calling on the Federal government and all state governments to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.
In a joint statement, the Law Council and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) are demanding action on the “national tragedy” of jailing children as young as 10.
The two bodies believe the arrest, detention, or imprisonment of a child should be used only as a measure of last resort, and should only occur for the shortest appropriate period of time.
“Prison should not be a rite of passage for any child. Yet, in Australia, children as young as 10 can be imprisoned,” the statement says.
Law Council President, Arthur Moses SC, says raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility would bring Australia in line with international human rights standards, and help to ensure that Australia’s response to some of its most vulnerable children is health and welfare-based.
“It will maximise their chances of living productive and happy lives,” says Mr Moses.
First Nations children suffer the most
Mr Moses also noted the disproportionate impact that the minimum age of criminal responsibility has on First Nations children.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are at least 23 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous young people.
“Early contact with the criminal justice system increases the chances of reincarceration, leading to an almost-inevitable progression to the adult corrections system. It does not make communities safer. The Attorneys-General know this is the case. It is time that they showed some courage and leadership to implement these changes. There should be a bipartisan approach to this pressing issue by our politicians. Our children should not be used as political footballs in a law and order auction.
“Very serious offences are rarely perpetrated by children. Moreover, more than half of children in detention are unsentenced, being either detained by police prior to court or on remand awaiting trial or sentencing.”
AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, said that these children are often the victims of abuse and neglect, and many have mental health conditions, cognitive impairments, and other significant challenges.
“Most children in prison come from backgrounds that are disadvantaged. These children often experience violence, abuse, disability, homelessness, and drug or alcohol misuse,” he says.
“Criminalising the behaviour of young and vulnerable children creates a vicious cycle of disadvantage and forces children to become entrenched in the criminal justice system.”