JOINT MEDIA RELEASE
Issued in partnership with Human Rights Law Centre, Change The Record, Amnesty International, and ACT Council of Social Service
Tuesday 9 May 2023
The ACT Government has been criticised for its failure to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 right away, with justice advocates saying the welfare of 12- and 13-year-old children cannot wait until 2025.
The ACT Government has today tabled a Bill that would see the age of criminal responsibility raised from 10 to only 12 years old, in a delayed process to eventually raise the age to 14 in July 2025 with exceptions.
Medical, legal, and human rights experts have been unequivocal in calling for governments to raise the age to at least 14 with no carve-outs. Yet the ACT has flagged that children accused of serious offences will continue to be subject to police investigation including strip-searches, being dragged through courts, and locked in prisons.
By keeping the age of criminal responsibility as low as 12 until 2025 and neglecting to protect all children from a harmful system, Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury have failed some of the ACT’s most marginalised children.
Prison has devastating impacts on children’s and young people’s health, development, mental health and wellbeing. Evidence shows that the earlier a child is locked up in jail, the more the child is at risk of being entrenched in the justice system and re-engaging with the system later in life.
Instead of locking up kids in prison, Chief Minister Barr and the ACT Government must fund community-led solutions which are supported by evidence and keep our children and communities safe.
Karly Warner, CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT):
“In the extremely rare instances when a child does something seriously wrong, it’s because they’ve been let down and need our help. We have abundant evidence that locking up children causes ongoing harm for them and their families, and the whole community. The ACT Government is well aware of this evidence. Politicians have no excuse to sacrifice 12 and 13-year-old children for political expediency.
“Let’s be clear: by failing to raise the age to 14 urgently and without exception, the ACT Government is failing Aboriginal children. Aboriginal kids are over-represented at every stage of the system, from police to court to prison. The ACT imprisons Aboriginal children at 12 times the rate of non-Indigenous children. It’s Aboriginal kids and families who will be most harmed by the government’s refusal to fully accept the evidence about what works.”
Cheryl Axleby, Co-Chair, Change the Record:
“While the commitment from the ACT to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility is a promising step, it is disappointing that yet again our little children must wait. Governments have the capability of acting now and raising the age to 14 now and adding exceptions for certain offences is deeply worrying. The ACT's commitment to only raise the age to 12 now is too little, too late and risks exposing more children to the vicious cycle of the criminal legal system. These children should be finishing primary school and starting high school. They should be with their families, not locked up behind bars.”
Amala Ramarathinam, Acting Managing Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre:
“Children belong in playgrounds and schools, never in prisons and police cells. The delay in raising the age to 14 is a betrayal of ACT's children, especially those who have been victims of poverty, violence and abuse.
“Andrew Barr’s staged approach does nothing for the children growing up in prisons right now who need therapeutic support. Continuing to lock up 12 and 13 year old children and raising the age with exceptions goes against all of medical evidence and expert advice from Aboriginal, legal and human rights organisations as well as the UN.
“Serious consideration should be given to amending the Bill. Anything less than 14, or with exceptions, is a failure by the Barr Government to do the right thing by children and young people in the ACT.”
Gemma Killen, Interim CEO, ACT Council of Social Service:
“While we welcome the move to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility, this long overdue reform must not be delayed any further. We are also deeply concerned that the legislation will include exceptions that will continue to allow 12 and 13 year old children to be charged if they commit certain offences. Medical and scientific consensus is that people under the age of 14 do not have the developmental capacity to be held criminally responsible and that detention increases their odds of reoffending.
“If we agree that children cannot be held responsible for minor offences, we must agree that they are not criminally responsible for more serious offences.This decision goes against calls from the United Nations, medical and legal experts, the community sector and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations who have called for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to be at least 14 with no exceptions.”
Kacey Teerman, Associate Campaigner, Amnesty International Australia:
“This legislation is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough in raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 quickly enough. While it will have a significant impact on the lives of 10 and 11 year olds in the ACT criminal justice system, it is not enough for all the other kids subjected to harm in youth detention.
“We know, as do the health, legal, advocacy and community experts that the reality of exposing a child to police, prisons and the criminal system leaves them with irreparable trauma and harm. Governments should be doing everything possible to invest the millions they spend on locking kids up into community-driven programs that actually work.”
An open letter signed by 126 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, health, legal, youth, community and human rights organisations in Australia called on Attorney Generals across the country to act on the recommendations provided from numerous parliamentary inquiries, medical advice and Aboriginal experts, and raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 without exceptions.
Aboriginal Legal Service
0427 346 017
0407 299 007