Move to lift criminal age on hold as SA waits for national decision

SA children aged as young as 10 will continue to be arrested, charged and detained for at least another year after a national meeting decided to put off a decision to lift the criminal age, with Attorney-General Vickie Chapman unwilling to take action before a federal consensus is reached.

Jul 28, 2020, updated Jul 28, 2020
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The Council of Attorneys-General yesterday decided that there was still work to do on what would replace the current system should the age of criminal responsibility in Australia be lifted from 10 to at least 14 years.

That work isn’t expected to be finished until next year while a review is still underway.

InDaily last week reported calls from Aboriginal children’s advocates to lift the criminal age in South Australia ahead of a national decision, following the release of data showing the rate of imprisonment for Indigenous children in the state is approximately 20 times that for non-Indigenous children.

Peak groups including the Australian Medical Association, the SA Guardian for Children and Law Society of SA have also throw their support behind lifting the age of criminal responsibility.

Meanwhile, the Greens have attempted to bypass the federal discussions by introducing a Bill to state parliament last week to lift the criminal age in SA to 14.

But Chapman said after yesterday’s national meeting that “further work is required on this issue”.

“As I have stated from the start, I am of the mind that the age of criminal responsibility needs to be uniform across the entire country,” she told InDaily. 

“There has been no finalised report received regarding the age of criminal responsibility.”

New South Wales Attorney-General Mark Speakman said his state was yet to be convinced that the criminal age should be raised.

“There is understandable community concern when, for example, 13-year-olds in far north Queensland are alleged to have raped a minor, and understandable community concern that kids may feel they can get away with things if there isn’t some criminal sanctions attached,” he said.

“There is a significant onus on those who want to make the case for change, that’s why this further work has to be done.”

SA Council of Social Service branded yesterday’s decision to “further criminalise children” as “disappointing”.

According to data published by the peak group in 2015, if the rate of detaining Aboriginal young people was the same as the general child population, South Australia would save over $12 million each year.

“We know that criminalising any child, and especially children who are under the age of 14, has long-term harmful effects,” SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley said.

“Involvement in the criminal justice system at a young age can cause further harm and young people aged 10 to 14 in the youth justice system are at risk of becoming chronic, long-term offenders, through exposure to punitive criminal justice environments and the isolation from family and support networks.”

It follows the release of a report by the SA Training Centre Visitor last week, which found children as young as 10 detained at the Kurlana Tapa youth detention centre were being denied access to education, phone calls to lawyers and medical treatment due to “inadequate” staffing.

The report states Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright was provided with “very little information” about focussed support for detainees aged between 10 and 14, with one staff member suggesting the approach was “simply reactive, with no specific support programs on offer”.

“Another staff member described how some younger detainees end up being repeat detainees, pointing out that this attests to the truism: ‘Once in the system, always in the system,’” the report states.

Detainees quoted in the report revealed they were bullied at the centre from a young age.

“When I was 10, I was locked up. I’ve spent three birthdays over there [Jonal campus] and two in here [Goldsborough]. The first time, I was 10. It was very scary,” one is quoted. 

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Another reportedly said: “When I first came in at 12 years of old, I was in the games room: they [other detainees] would threaten me … I was scared of them and I was too scared to tell staff: one was 17 years old.”

The State Government is in the process of implementing all 10 recommendations made in the report.

Wright this morning said she was “disappointed” at the national decision to delay lifting the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

She said many detained children in Australia were locked up despite never being convicted of committing a crime.

“Studies show that a child under the age of 14 does not have the mental capacity to work out what constitutes a crime,” she said.

“In addition, many of these young children have come from backgrounds of significant trauma as a result of poverty, family violence, substance abuse and adverse life events.”

Amnesty International Australia says nearly 600 children aged between 10 and 13 were put behind bars in one year.

The human rights organisation says two-thirds of imprisoned children are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

– with AAP

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