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Are we failing our kids?

19 November 2019, Action for Change

It’s time to raise the age

Today marks 30 years since the United Nations signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a human rights treaty which Australia ratified in 1990. And while we might think that we in Australia are a strong advocate of children’s rights, we are failing our most vulnerable children. 

Currently, the age of criminal responsibility in Australia is just 10. That’s an age when many are starting to learn 24-hour time and reading books with chapters. And yet in Australia, it’s also the age when a girl or boy can be charged with a criminal offence and be processed within the criminal justice system, as an adult would be. 

The vast majority of these children are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. They come from complex family environments, from backgrounds of trauma, neglect and disadvantage. They may be cognitively impaired or disabled.  

On the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Save the Children believes Australia should change the age of criminal responsibility and let kids be kids. 

How do we keep communities safe? 

“No ten-year-old should be in jail” says Matt Gardiner, head of Australian Services at Save the Children. “These children, through no fault of their own, are already starting at the bottom rung of their ladder. When we imprison them, we are not addressing the underlying issues that are causing them to act out.”

The data is clear on this – once imprisoned, the cycle of reoffending is more likely to continue than the trajectory of rehabilitation, education and employment.  

Recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare research shows the earlier a child is locked up, the more likely they are to re-offend. 94% of children aged 10-13 sentenced to detention come back before the courts within 12 months. But giving kids time to mature means the community ends up safer too; the recidivism rate when a fifteen-year-old is first locked up lowers to 49%. 

“We are not saying that kids who offend don’t need to take responsibility for their actions,” Gardiner argues. “But that is different to criminalising children.

“We know what works to set up a better path for kids is growing their maturity, individual attention, and improved mental health support where it’s needed. This is all achievable through educational and therapeutic measures.”

Out of step

Internationally, Australia has one of the lowest ages for criminal responsibility in the world, a legacy from our colonial past. Many European countries including Germany, Italy and Spain have a minimum criminal age of 14. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers 14 to be the absolute lowest acceptable age in light of current scientific understanding, and encourages parties to the Convention to consider a higher minimum age such as 15 or 16 years of age. 

What does the science say? 

Dr Mick Creati is a pediatrician and Senior Fellow with the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He knows our current laws criminalise normal childhood behaviour and trauma. Behaviours children are being charged with, for example petty theft or damage to property, are behaviours within the normal range of what one would expect, given what we know about the development of the brain at this young age, and the frequent histories of trauma and neurocognitive difficulties in children in the justice system.  “Their behaviours are frequently impulsive acts,” he says, “part and parcel of the poorly developed decision-making skills, going along with their peers, and testing boundaries.”

A ten-year-old, he notes, “does not have fully developed decision-making skills. One’s ability to realise the consequences of your actions is not fully developed until you’re 25.

“Trauma and neglect can have serious impacts in a child’s brain, resulting in significant neurocognitive deficits and this can express itself as problematic behavior”.

What should we be doing?

What should we be doing?

In Western Australia, Save the Children’s works with a range of partners to implement the Youth Partnership Project. This early intervention program is changing the story for young people in Western Australia who are at-risk of becoming caught up in the juvenile justice system.
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Jack*’s story

Jack*’s story

From anger to peace. Jack’s childhood is now marked by fun and play, not marred by violence. By getting the referrals he needed through the Youth Partnership Project, he and his carer are on a better path for the future. 
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Let kids be kids

Children like Jack are undoubtedly helped by early intervention programs that support them to stay in school, rather than one mistake away from being charged. Just being charged can create lifelong disadvantage as a criminal record can be used against you when applying for employment, housing, or international travel.
On the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, let’s give kids in Australia back their rights and their right to a childhood free from incarceration. We have a responsibility to recognise Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and bring Australia in line with international standards.

*Name has been changed

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