Australia moves towards raising age of criminal responsibility but advocates say 12 still too young

·4-min read

Australia’s attorneys general have agreed to formulate a plan to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years old, but the move has been criticised by justice advocates as a “nothing” decision that will do little to reduce the juvenile detention population.

In a statement released late on Monday, the Meeting of Attorneys-General agreed to “support development of a proposal to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, including with regard to any carve outs, timing and discussion of implementation requirements”.

The decision was announced as part of “other business” and was being considered “informally”.

But justice groups have claimed that, based on data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, raising the age to 12 would make little difference to the number of children imprisoned.

Related: Agreement to raise Australia’s age of criminal responsibility to 14 unlikely as states go own way

They say raising the age to 12 would only reduce the number of children under 14 in detention from 499 to 456.

In NSW there are currently 105 under-14s in jail. The law change would mean 99 remained in jail. And in the Northern Territory all 16 of the kids currently in detention would remain there.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service labelled the announcement “futile and deceiving”.

“This announcement does little to better the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who make up a staggering 65% of the kids in the criminal legal system,” NATSILS said.

“It has been over three years since Attorneys General committed to exploring options to raise the age. Three years of inaction is damaging the lives and futures of our kids – and we are sick and tired of meaningless statements.”

Amnesty International Australia welcomed the commitment to raise the age of criminal responsibility, but said the age should be 14.

“It’s a kick in the guts to the kids languishing in detention and everyone who has campaigned for the chance for our kids to live happy and healthy lives free of the criminal justice system,” Amnesty’s Indigenous rights campaigner Maggie Munn said

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Munn said the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended 14 as the minimum age of criminal responsibility in 2019.

“And here we are two years later talking about raising the age to 12 – it’s devastating the Attorneys-General think so little of our kids and their futures.”

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service said it was “nothing short of devastating” for Aboriginal children.

“That this country’s leading legal officers choose to ignore human rights norms, indisputable medical evidence, and Aboriginal voices is shocking,” said VALS’s community justice leader Lee-Anne Carter, a Wiradjuri and Noongar woman.

“You can’t celebrate the Closing the Gap agreement and the establishment, in Victoria, of the first Australian truth and justice commission, while simultaneously filling prisons with Aboriginal children.”

The Northern Territory had already committed to raising the age to 12 to reflect the recommendation of the Don Dale royal commission, but the ACT is the only jurisdiction to commit to raising the age to 14 in line with international standards set by the UN.

‘Still losing their baby teeth’

In NSW, Greens MP David Shoebridge has introduced a bill into parliament to raise the age to 14 and prevent any child under 16 from being locked up.

“At ages 10 and 11 children are still losing their baby teeth, they don’t have their pen licenses let alone drivers licenses,” Shoebridge said.

Related: Jailing of nearly 500 children aged 13 and under a ‘failure’ by Australia’s top legal officers, advocates say

“Some of these young people spend their first night away from their families in a prison cell”.

“Locking young children up isn’t just cruel, it doesn’t work. Children need our protection, help to learn and grow [and] break cycles of offending and disadvantage.”

The age of criminal responsibility is the age at which a child is considered by law to have understood that their actions were wrong and can face criminal charges. All Australian states and territories have this age set at 10 years old.

Australia has faced repeated criticism for not raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

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