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New ways needed to help kids in crisis

John Adams, General Manager – Northern Territory at Jesuit Social Services, writes about the need to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years. This piece was originally published in the NT News.

Locking up children as young as 10 years old is not the right way to respond to kids in trouble.

I have worked in Child Protection and Youth Justice in the Territory for the last 20 years and I am yet to see a child who is better off because they have been in contact with the criminal justice system.

I think we all want what is best for our future, which is what is best for our children. Locking up children as young as 10 years old is clearly not what is best for them, and not the right way to respond to children in trouble.

Doing nothing when a child is in trouble can no longer pass the pub test. A child who engages in offending is a child in crisis – what is going on in an 11-year old’s life that means they are coming to the attention of police? The answer to this question is complex, but raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 is not.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility is not about doing less – it is about doing more. It’s about approaching the situation differently. Rather than criminalising behavior, it’s about saying this child is behaving in a way that doesn’t work for the child or society. It is about asking – what can we do that gives the child the best chance of changing his or her behaviours?

It’s about giving children the opportunity to learn from positive role models and stay connected to family, community and culture.

Crucially, it’s also about keeping children in school and ensuring that our education system nurtures their diverse strengths. We know that education plays a vital role in not only keeping children out of trouble but giving them the foundational tools and skills they need to succeed in life.

We know that custodial responses lead to more harm and that many children who exit the youth detention system do so worse off than when they entered – which increases the chances of further crime.

We call on our Governments around the country to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 so that every child has the chance to flourish in life in a community that is safe.