More than two dozen countries have pressured Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility at a United Nations meeting overnight.
- Indigenous children are over-represented in the Australian justice system
- Aboriginal legal services have called for immediate action following the international pressure
- Most Australian jurisdictions are yet to implement changes to the age of criminal responsibility
Canada, France, Germany, Venezuela and Norway were among the 31 UN member states to call on Australia to raise the age, in what advocates said was an escalation in international pressure relating to this issue.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia is 10.
In 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended 14 years as the minimum age.
The latest push to implement change was heard as part of Australia’s UN Universal Periodic Review, a meeting that takes place once every five years to review the human rights records of all UN member states.
In response to the calls, Australian Government representatives said a Council of Attorneys-General (CAG) cross-jurisdictional working group had been set up to look into the issue, but needed more time before it could make a decision.
In July last year, Australia’s CAG postponed a decision on raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.
It means children as young as 10 can still be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced across Australia.
Last August, the ACT became the first jurisdiction to break ranks and support raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 and called for national consensus on the issue.
‘We do have a problem’
Cheryl Axleby, the co-chair of the Aboriginal-led justice coalition Change The Record, said the Australian Government’s response to the international concern lacked urgency.
“Australia needs to accept that we do have a problem and an issue here in this country, with the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly our young people,” she said.
Ms Axleby’s assertion that the criminalisation of young people disproportionately affected Indigenous Australians was acknowledged in last night’s UN meeting by Australian Government officials.
In a public response to UN delegates, First Assistant Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Andrew Walter, outlined the most recent data.
“While Indigenous Australians comprised only 6 per cent of young people aged between 10 and 17, they made up approximately 57 per cent of those in youth detention,” he said.
“This proportion rises to 78 per cent for young people between the ages of 10 and 13.”
The international pressure to raise the age comes just over a year since a high profile UN address by Arrernte and Garrwa boy Dujuan Hoosan.
Hoosan, who featured in the documentary In My Blood It Runs, was just 12 years old when he travelled to Geneva in 2019 to speak to the Human Rights Council.
As the youngest person to ever address the world’s peak human rights body, Mr Hoosan pleaded with delegates to take the plight of young Aboriginal children seriously.
“I want adults to stop cruelling 10-year-old kids in jail,” he told delegates.
Reforms moving slowly
There has been limited policy change in most Australian states and territories relating to the age of criminal responsibility.
Law reform advocates had hoped that a meeting of the Council of Attorneys-General last July would result in a joint statement of support to raise the criminal age to 14.
But that was not forthcoming, with representatives from the group saying more needed to be done to examine alternatives to imprisonment.
In November 2019, Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said he was not “overly enthusiastic” about the reform but acknowledged the view of states and territories may differ.
A spokesperson for Mr Porter on Thursday said the Australian Government would consider the recommendations of the UN Universal Periodic Review and the ongoing work of the Council of Attorneys-General.
Royal commission advice yet to be implemented
One of the recommendations of the 2017 Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory was to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12.
Minister for Territory Families, Kate Worden, on Thursday told the ABC the NT Government could eventually adopt that recommendation.
“The Territory Labor Government has supported in principle the recommendation from the royal commission,” she said in a statement.
“The Territory is collaborating with other states and territories on a national approach to the age of criminal responsibility.”
Doctors push for law change
Paediatrician and senior fellow at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Dr Mick Creati, welcomed international condemnation of Australia’s age of criminal responsibility laws.
He said research showed locking up young children was inappropriate.
“There’s now clear medical advice that in Australia we’re locking up children for behaviours which are explained by their immaturity, disability, trauma and reduced capacity to anticipate the consequences of their actions.”