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Follow NT’s lead to raise criminal age

Follow NT’s lead to raise criminal age

By Karin Derkley

Child Welfare Young Persons 


State and territory governments should stop trapping children in the "quicksand of the criminal justice system" by following the Northern Territory's commitment to raising the age of criminal responsibility, legal advocates have urged.

The NT government has given in-principle support to the recommendation by the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12. It has also supported another recommendation that no child under 14 should be sentenced to detention, except in the most serious cases.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) has called on the NT government to fully implement the recommendations as “a matter of priority,” and advised other states and territories to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 12, consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"Raising the age of criminal responsibility will radically change how the criminal justice system views the criminality of some of our youngest and most vulnerable children," LCA president Morry Bailes said.

"Children belong in their communities, with their families and support networks, not in detention. The detention of children should be a last resort and never a first-step.”

Ruth Barson, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said putting children under 14 into prison trapped them in the "quicksand of the criminal justice system”.

“Children belong in classrooms and playgrounds, not prisons. Every other state and territory government should follow suit immediately so we can begin to put the dark chapter of the child abuse at facilities like Don Dale behind us,” said Ms Barson.

According to the Sentencing Council of Victoria, a child that is first sentenced at age 12 or younger has an 86 per cent chance of reoffending – compared to just 33 per cent for children first sentenced in their late teenage years.

The LIV has called for more funding to improve youth diversion and engagement services rather than imprisoning young people. “Research shows that the younger a person has contact with the criminal justice system the more likely it is they will reoffend,” LIV president Belinda Wilson said.

Prison does not act as a deterrent for reoffending and more often leads to an offending trajectory, Ms Wilson added. Keeping children and young people out of prison helps them stay connected to family, education, employment and the community “ultimately improving the safety of the wider community”, she said.

Smart Justice for Young People convenor Tiffany Overall said the response to the NT Royal Commission showed that “the tide was turning”, towards “positive solutions that support children to live safely and thrive in their communities. Victoria could be leading the way. Instead, we’re falling behind.”

“We recommend putting in place evidence-based approaches to supporting vulnerable children who are below this age. This should include less punitive methods of holding them to account, such as restorative justice and family centred approaches, as well as preventative measures that address criminogenic behaviour.”

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