The Guardian • Issue #1964

Australia’s age of criminal responsibility is “archaic”

Australia is being urged by 31 countries of the United Nations to reconsider our archaic laws regarding the age of criminal responsibility. Currently, this age is set at just ten years old – four years below the international standard.

One of the most concerning things about Australia’s legal age of criminal responsibility is how it is weaponised against Indigenous children. Eighty per cent of 10-year-olds incarcerated in Australia are Indigenous children. Indigenous children are seventeen times more likely to be incarcerated – in Western Australia, twenty-one times more likely – and their likelihood of reappearing in adult court is ninety per cent compared with fifty-two per cent for non-Indigenous children. As it stands today, Indigenous children are more likely to be incarcerated than to complete year 12.

By holding 10-year-old children criminally responsible, we are guaranteeing the cycles of incarceration will continue for years and generations to come. Ninety-four per cent of children incarcerated between 10-12 will return to jail before the age of eighteen. Just as suspending students does little to solve the root of behavioural issues, uprooting a child from their school and home life to be locked away and labelled a criminal only serves to perpetuate the “school to prison pipeline.” This system provides no solution to the root causes of incarceration in Australia as the residual effects of a brutal colonisation, with little to no reparations, still weigh heavily on Indigenous communities.

Recently the City of Fremantle local council in Western Australia announced that they were changing the name of Kings Court to Walyalup Koort, meaning “Fremantle’s heart” in the Noongar language. While it is positive to see an embrace of Indigenous culture and language in recent years, this does nothing to bring attention to our society’s true, systemic problems. The causes that will truly advance the living standards of Indigenous people should include allowing them the right to self-determination and implementing extensive criminal justice reforms. While Australia’s justice system and laws may no longer be as explicitly racist as they once were, applying these laws has proven time and time again to be racist. Our outdated juvenile laws are providing a foundation for racist sentencing and imprisonment of young children.

If the Australian government could commit to the bare minimum of changing the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, we could decrease the incarcerated Indigenous juvenile population by about fifteen per cent by raising the age, we are allowing a child to have a childhood. We would also be allowing them to continue with education. Education is a proven tool to free people from cycles of poverty and ensuing incarceration. In WA, around seventeen per cent of children are living below the poverty line, with this rate shooting up to sixty-nine per cent in areas such as East Pilbara. Many children growing up in these circumstances are already at risk of dropping out of school; by disrupting schooling with imprisonment, they may never have the chance to break the cycle of poverty. If we do not even attempt to give children the resources and programs to succeed in life, how can we expect anything but symptoms of poverty such as crime to arise from those situations?

Punitive justice is not an effective tool in ending crime. It is little more than a bandaid solution. Once an individual is released back into the same – or often, worse – situation post-incarceration, the rate of recidivism is considerably high, especially where poverty and lack of education are factors. Furthermore, when incarceration first occurs in the formative years, can we expect anything other than the development of low self-worth, low self-efficacy, or a “criminal” mentality? More often than not, a child’s personal experiences and circumstances are overlooked in this system, and likewise at school prior to imprisonment. With these current frameworks in place in the justice system, we are allowing the unchilding of Indigenous children rather than supporting and encouraging personal growth and healing in order to achieve the best outcomes for the community, the affected and the offender.

Australia must give Indigenous people the right to self-determination. Indigenous people deserve the right to provide solutions that garner the best outcomes for their own communities. Restorative justice practices led by the affected communities could result in a substantial shift in how we view crime and how we treat offenders. The solutions being handed down by the Australian government haven’t worked thus far, and it is time we redirect funding to resources and programs that support Indigenous communities in healing from generations of trauma, colonisation, and imprisonment. Our government should be doing everything that it can to protect, support and help our children. Ten-year-old children belong at school and in playgrounds, not prisons.

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