Jesuit Social Services’ recently released Federal Election platform, A blueprint for a just recovery, builds on 45 years of advocacy and action, to outline the organisation’s vision for a just society across a range of interconnected social policy areas, from climate change to Aboriginal self-determination, youth justice, mental health and affordable housing. In this third in a series of pre-Election blogs, we focus on fair justice systems.
For 45 years, Jesuit Social Services has worked with children and young people who have contact with the criminal justice system. We know the unique disadvantage and vulnerability they experience – and we know that if children cause trouble, they best way to help them understand the impact of their actions and address their behaviour is to support connection with family and school in the community.
That is why we call on the incoming Federal Government to prioritise raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years across all states and territories. This will ensure children up to the age of 14 are responded to in a way that is appropriate to their age and addresses the drivers of their behaviour while maintaining connection with family and community.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 will also bring Australia in line with international standards embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child enacted in many overseas jurisdictions.
The evidence is clear: children detained between the ages of 10 and 14 are more likely, compared to those at older ages, to have sustained and frequent contact with the criminal justice system throughout their life. Raising the age of criminal responsibility would serve as a critical prevention measure by diverting children from contact with the criminal justice system.
Child offending experts, psychologists and other health experts agree that younger children have rarely developed the social, emotional and intellectual maturity necessary for legal responsibility before the age of 14 years, and lack the capacity to properly engage with the justice system.
Children who have contact with the criminal justice system overwhelmingly experience multiple and complex forms of disadvantage.
According to a snapshot in the Victorian Parole Board’s most recent Annual Report 2020-21, more than 66 per cent of children detained on sentence and remand at the Parkville and Malmsbury Youth Justice precincts were themselves victims of abuse, trauma or neglect.
In addition, more than 43 per cent of children had experienced family violence, more than 46 per cent were accessing mental health support, 66 per cent had a history of use or misuse of alcohol and drugs and 25 per cent had a history of self-harm or suicidal ideation.
These are some of the most vulnerable children in the community, and they need support to turn their lives around in the community
In 2019, Jesuit Social Services released the discussion paper Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility: There is a better way. This paper shows how children can be held more effectively to account for their actions, to prevent further antisocial behaviour, and to better protect the wider community. It argues that responses to children need to be carefully calibrated to their level of development to avoid doing more harm than good.
We have long advocated for Governments across the country to raise the age. We commend the ACT Government for committing to this as a priority reform, which has included outlining options for therapeutic and restorative care to reduce children and young people’s interaction with the criminal justice system.
Their positive work should be the catalyst for other states and territories to follow their lead, and in line with this we call on the next Federal Government to work with states and territories to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years.
Implement the findings of the Royal Commission in the Northern Territory
In our Federal Election platform, we call on the incoming Federal Government to support the Northern Territory Government to implement key recommendations from the 2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.
The final report of the Royal Commission made 227 recommendations outlining humane and effective approaches to supporting young people in contact with the justice system. Some key recommendations, including raising the age of criminal responsibility, have still not been implemented.
In 2021, the Northern Territory Government introduced a number of legislative changes that have contributed to record numbers of children incarcerated, have reduced access to diversion; and granted more powers to place electronic monitoring devices on young people in contact with the justice system. More recently, it was revealed that spithoods and restraint chairs continue to be used on children despite the Northern Territory Government’s commitment to phase out these inhumane devices.
The incoming Federal Government should prioritise working with the Territory Government to take immediate action to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and young people – through partnership with local communities, adopting place-based approaches and building on the principles of mutual respect, shared commitment, shared responsibility and good faith.
Jesuit Social Services’ fair justice systems recommendations:
- Raise the age of criminal responsibility to the age of 14 across all states and territories
- Establish a National Justice Reinvestment Body that embeds Aboriginal leadership and expertise at all levels
- Support the Northern Territory Government to give full effect to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory
- Coordinate the establishment of National Protective Mechanisms in each state and territory to provide independent oversight of places of detention
- Work with States and Territories and independent oversight bodies to ban the use of isolation in youth justice facilities and significantly reduce the use of isolation and solitary confinement in adult prisons across Australian jurisdictions as part of OPCAT implementation