The ACT is the first jurisdiction in Australia to vote to bring its laws in line with UN standards, in a move welcomed by Indigenous advocates
The ACT has become the first jurisdiction in Australia to support raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, in a move hailed by justice campaigners as a “huge win” for the rights of children.
The resolution, which brings the territory into line with UN standards, says it will be the responsibility of whichever parties form government after the ACT election in October to amend the legislation.
The Legislative Assembly motion, passed on Thursday, said in amending any legislation, consideration should also be given to medical evidence on cognitive capacity of children over 14, and there should be options to shift the age or provide exemptions for more serious criminal offences.
The executive director of the Gugan Gulwan youth Aboriginal corporation, Kim Davison, said raising the age of criminal responsibility was “the first step to keeping our kids safe, healthy and out of the dangerous quicksand of the criminal legal system”.
“Children deserve care, support and help when they are in trouble – not prison cells and paddy wagons.”
The motion said keeping young people safe and diverting them from the justice system was a whole-of-government and whole-of-community responsibility.
The chief executive of the NSW/ACT Aboriginal legal service, Karly Warner, said Aboriginal children were “strong, smart and resilient”.
“But we know through our work at the ALS that Aboriginal children as young as 10 are targeted and taken into custody, at risk of being taken to a barbed wire facility, strip-searched on entry, given limited access to peers, teachers and supports, and put in a concrete cell.”
Last month, the council of attorneys general decided to postpone a decision on raising the age. The New South Wales attorney general, Mark Speakman, said the decision had been deferred to 2021 to allow for more work to be done on examining alternatives to imprisonment.
The president of the ACT Law Society, Chris Donohue, said that showed a “disappointing lack of political courage” and welcomed Thursday’s resolution.
Joel Clark, Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous rights advocate, said the way was clear for other jurisdictions to follow the ACT’s lead.
“We all know in our hearts that it’s wrong to lock little kids up, especially when all the evidence shows that diversion and justice reinvestment is what actually prevents youth offending,” he said.
“There should be nothing stopping other jurisdictions to follow suit. The longer they wait, the longer little kids are exposed to the harmful conditions of prison.”
The United Nations committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended the age of criminal responsibility should be 14. Justice campaigners including Amnesty, Aboriginal legal, health and community services, the Law Council of Australia and the Australian Medical Assocation have campaigned for a national minimum of 14.
The ACT parliament agreed that “there is desirability of national consensus on the minimum age of criminal responsibility, but that this does not prevent a jurisdiction from making an independent decision to raise the age.”
Between 2008 and 2018 only one young person under the age of 14 has been sentenced to a term of detention at the ACT’s Bimberi youth justice centre. Four children under the age of 12 have been in unsentenced detention over the same period.