‘Ineffective’: Age of criminal responsibility must be increased

Australia has some way to go to improve its criminal justice system concerning children (image via Twitter).

By Youssef Saudie

The age of criminal responsibility must be increased, says Youssef Saudie.

AT VICTORIA’S Youth Parliament recently, six students from the regional Victorian town Castlemaine passed a bill on raising the State’s criminal age of responsibility to 14 years of age — something our Victorian Parliament should do, as well.

The Castlemaine Secondary College student’s views are in line with various legal, social and medical organisations including the United Nations, the Human Rights Law Centre, Amnesty International and the Australian Medical Association who have all called for the criminal age responsibility to be increased.

It is also in line with the recommendations from the 2016-2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

The students said youth crime should be addressed in a more “compassionate and community-minded way” rather than in detention centres “which are known to be unequivocally ineffective”.

The bill was created, written and debated by the students with ideas built from extensive research.

Team member Uma Dingemans discussed various reasons from medical and social science research on why youth crime happens and how raising the age matters.

She said:

“Those who come in contact with the criminal justice system often have neurological challenges, such as ADHD or mental disorders like depression and anxiety, in fact, 89% of children incarcerated have neurocognitive issues.” 

Another member, Shanti Steventon, said it was a “controversial and sensitive subject for people” while debating.

“I think it is a very complex social issue that requires a lot of constructive, compassionate conversation to be understood,” she said.

As an alternative intervention, the students have proposed to create a Child Justice Authority Victoria (CJAV) council which would develop a process of assessment of children under the age of 14 who break the law. They would establish re-engagement programs focused on community integration and initiate ethical and legal frameworks focused on the programs.

The team believe that increasing the criminal age responsibility and the CJAV can help in reducing youth recidivism.

The Castlemaine team acknowledge the intergenerational and systemic disadvantage that contributes to the high number of young Indigenous Australians in detention and believe raising the age of criminal responsibility can also help address this overrepresentation. 

NATSILS (National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Legal Service) is the peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. They also believe the criminal age responsibility should be raised to 14 years of age.

Cheryl Axleby is a proud Narungga woman and co-chair of NATSILS and said the current age of criminal responsibility set at ten is “archaic and arbitrary”.

She asserted:

The research shows, once children are in contact with the justice system, it’s very difficult to get out and stay out, to get a job and an education.

Almost 70% of 10-13 year olds in prison are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander kids, our NATSILS lawyers have represented children as young as 10 for offences such as stealing bread or a chocolate frog.

Ms Axleby said it is the most “vulnerable and disadvantaged children” who become trapped in the justice system.

Youssef Saudie is a journalist with the Youth Press Gallery covering the YMCA Youth Parliament of Victoria.

This article originally appeared on Independent Australia, July 28, 2019.

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