In our blood it runs: SA should raise the age of criminality this Human Rights Day
Children as young as 10, many of them Aboriginal, are locked up in South Australia and other states, despite clear evidence about its damaging impact. On Human Rights Day, it’s time SA took the lead to change policy and reclaim its reputation for courage and compassion, argues Sarah Moulds.
On 2 December 2019 I took my son to watch a special screening of In My Blood it Runs, a multi-award winning feature film starring Dujuan, a 10-year-old Aboriginal boy.
Dujuan is an incandescent mix of warrior and innocence, who engages viewers’ hearts and minds in his powerful story of culture, family and childhood.
My son, who is not Aboriginal but is the same age, connected warmly with Dujuan, but was shocked that the world Dujuan occupies is the same Australia that he lives in.
Not once has my son has contemplated the prospect of being jailed as a child. But ever present in Dujuan’s world is the threat of arrest, family separation and incarceration.
Aboriginal children and their families are justified in this fear.
In South Australia, and in other parts of the country, children as young as 10 can be imprisoned for breaking the law, and once jailed, their lives invariably take a sharp turn for the worse.
Their future is forfeited to the state, pursuant to laws that breach our voluntarily assumed international human rights obligations.
Extensive, multi-disciplinary research confirms that locking up children is a form of child abuse, that simply doesn’t work as a strategy to rehabilitate.
Human rights experts have noted that young people who are locked up for the first time before they are 14 are three times more likely to become long-term offenders who end up back in prison as adults.
Medical experts have explained that at the age of ten, children’s brains are not yet fully developed, including those areas regulating judgement, decision-making and impulse control.
This makes applying legal concepts of foresight and criminal intent problematic for this age group, who may not be able to fully understand the criminal nature of their behaviour.
Locking kids up is also an expensive form of policy failure, squandering resources urgently to address the root causes of juvenile offending and other anti-social behaviour.
A range of politicians from around the country have recognised the need to raise the age of criminality in Australia, including federal Centre Alliance MP Rebekah Sharkie, who introduced a Bill to change the federal laws in this space.
The South Australian Government has also indicated a willingness to look into this matter, albeit in the context of a broader Council of Australia Government’s Working Group.
That COAG Working Group includes federal Attorney General Christian Porter MP who told the Press Club in November this year that he did not see the need for reform.
Not surprisingly, although the group has met to discuss, it has not taken any clear action. Meanwhile, kids like Dujuan continue to witness their siblings and playmates being locked up for relatively minor offences, with devastating consequences for their rights and wellbeing.
Given the federal Attorney General’s comments, the prospect of getting nationally consistent laws in this area while the Morrison Government is in power looks like a long shot.
Instead, this Human Rights Day, South Australia should take the lead – regain its historical position as the Australian jurisdiction with the ingenuity, integrity and compassion to give practical meaning to fundamental human rights.
It doesn’t take buckets of money or complex legal advice to raise the age – just the courage imagine a State where no kid has to fear incarceration at the age of ten.
To find out more about the film In My Blood It Runs or how to take action on this issue visit https://inmyblooditruns.com/
Dr Sarah Moulds is a lecturer at the University of South Australia’s Law School, with teaching and research interests in the area of public law, administrative law, anti-discrimination law and human rights.