Raise the age decision delayed as ACT refuses to take stance

Bimberi Youth Justice Centre, where the ACT detains young people convicted of crimes. Photo by Karleen Minney
Bimberi Youth Justice Centre, where the ACT detains young people convicted of crimes. Photo by Karleen Minney

Australia's Attorneys-General have put off making a decision on whether to raise the age of criminal responsibility, meaning children as young as 10 will continue to be locked up, despite calls from advocates for the laws to change.

ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay said he understands the ACT government was focused on diverting children away from the criminal justice system and limiting the incarceration of young offenders, but didn't commit the ACT government to changing the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.

"I understand the detrimental effect that facing the courts and spending time in detention can have on children," Mr Ramsay said.

"As such, the ACT government is committed to progressing this important issue as a uniform change across Australia through the Council of Attorneys-General."

ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay. Picture: Karleen Minney

ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay. Picture: Karleen Minney

"We will continue to advocate for a nationally consistent position that reflects the values of our community, that is evidence based and which promotes the resilience of our children."

Local groups had pleaded with the ACT government to take a leading role on the issue, but so far the government has only committed to supporting the process through the council, which is waiting on further research from a working group led by the Western Australian government.

On Monday the Council of Attorneys-General put off making a decision on the issue until next year, saying there was still work to do on what would replace the system.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said when that report did come back it would be "crunch time" for a decision.

"There's an in-principle issue about whether you should raise the age of criminal responsibility at all, but if you do you need to know what is the alternative regime," he told reporters in Sydney after the meeting.

He said NSW was yet to be convinced the age should be raised.

"There is understandable community concern when, for example, 13-year-olds in far north Queensland are alleged to have raped a minor, and understandable community concern that kids may feel they can get away with things if there isn't some criminal sanctions attached," he said.

"There is a significant onus on those who want to make the case for change, that's why this further work has to be done."

Aboriginal children between 10 and 13 are disproportionately affected by the low age of criminal responsibility, with the ACT locking them up at eight times the rate of their non-Indigenous peers.

Nationally, Aboriginal children account for 65 per cent of those incarcerated below the age of 14.

Last week advocates from the ACT's youth, health, legal and community sectors penned a joint-letter to the territory government, urging the age of criminal responsibility be lifted from 10 to 14.

The letter called on the ACT government to lead the charge by making a commitment ahead of next week's meeting to raise the age, and to use the meeting to urge other jurisdictions to follow suit.

The 20 signatories include ACT Human Rights Commissioner Helen Watchirs, Children and Young People Commissioner Jodie Griffiths-Cook, and Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service chief executive Julie Tongs.

"Doctors agree that children do not have the cognitive capacity to be held criminally responsible at 10 years old," the letter said, citing the Australian Medical Association's position on the issue.

"Moreover, they have found that sending children to prison can cause them lifelong harm, increase rates of mental illness, trauma, and even lead to early death."

- With AAP

This story Decision delayed on raising criminal age of responsibility as ACT refuses to take stance first appeared on The Canberra Times.