Australian youth justice systems are in crisis: now is the time to Raise The Age

31 Aug 2022

Cheryl Axleby, Co-Chair of Change the Record writes of the crisis of the overrepresentation of First Nations children in incarceration. We need to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre
Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre.

Readers please be advised, this article contains and links to content people might find distressing, including child and sexual abuse.

Children do not belong behind bars, they do not belong in maximum security adult prisons, and they should not be punished for the failures of adults to keep them safe. In every state and territory children as young as 10 years old can be put in handcuffs, thrown into police cars and locked away in prison cells. As First Nations people, we know these experiences only too well, as this we’ve been dealing with this kind of treatment since invasion.
First Nations children make up at least of 60% of those locked up in this age group of 10 – 14 years old. 

Over the last month we have been bombarded with headlines from Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania about the dire conditions these children are being held in. Children as young as 14 years old being transferred to a maximum security adult prison in WA,  a child was  hospitalised after swallowing glass in desperation, skyrocketing rates of children harming themselves or attempting suicide in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale youth detention centr,e, and children in Tasmania were being locked in cells for most of the day.

Now is the time for commonwealth, state and territory governments to take urgent action and raise the age to at least 14 years old to get very young children out from behind bars.

A nationwide crisis in the youth ‘justice’ system

We know what happens to children when adults lock them away in concrete cells: they develop lifelong trauma, are less likely to finish school and more likely to be forced into homelessness, end up abandoned and stuck within a harmful system and even face a greater risk of premature death. That’s why the Australian Medical Association, Public Health Association of Australia, Australian Indigenous Doctors Association and the Royal College of Australian Physicians are unanimous in their calls for governments to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old. The United Nations have also called for all countries to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years olds. In addition, over 200,000 Australians have signed our petition calling for the age to be raised to at least 14 years old. 

This month Change the Record handed over those two hundred thousand (200,000) signatures to the Commonwealth Attorney General Mark Dreyfus and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney.When we did this we  called on them to show national leadership in raising the age. As children harm themselves and threaten to take their own lives in youth detention centres, there could be no greater urgency to ac

“Cruel, inhumane and degrading” acts in custody

We know many of my people who end up in the prison system do not belong there. First Nations people are often being   criminalised because of homelessness or poverty; our  women misidentified as perpetrators who are actually victim-survivors of family violence; First Nations people are criminalised because of their disability or mental illness; or trapped in the criminal justice system from as young as 10 years old and given no pathway out. Raising the age won’t fix these injustices, but it’s a step i to get young children out of prison and back to their families and communities where they belong. It could also reduce some of the pressure in overcrowded, understaffed youth detention  centres, which is allegedly the reason these children are being moved to adult prisons. 

More than five years ago the nation was shocked by images of an Aboriginal boy with a hood over his head, shackled to a chair in Don Dale. Now, the number of Aboriginal children being thrown behind bars in the NT has increased by 200% since May 2020, after the NT Government introduced some of the most punitive bail laws in the country. Children and their lawyers tell us at Change the Record that these appalling conditions have not improved. In just the last six months, children in NT youth prisons have harmed themselves 37 times and threatened to take their own lives over 50 times. 

In Western Australia, the Inspector of Custodial Services called the conditions at Banksia Hill youth detention centre “cruel, inhumane and degrading.” he number of suicide attempts at Banksia Hill has leaped from 2 in 2019 to 31 in 2021, and the number of self-harm incidents have increased from 145 to 320 over the same period. Instead of fixing these inhumane conditions, the Western Australian Government transferred a group of 20 predominately First Nations children to a maximum security adult prison, despite community voicing concerns for their safety.  

It has been almost three years since we launched the national Raise the Age campaign and called on commonwealth, state and territory governments to change the law to protect young children from these harms. So far, the ACT has committed to keep children under 14 years old out of the criminal justice system altogether, and Tasmania has announced it will keep children under the age of 14 years old out of prison cells. For the first time, we have a Commonwealth Government that has committed to working with state and territory governments to raise the age. But we need more action – and fast. 

The unfolding crisis in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and right around the country show us the very real consequences of government inaction. This is a national disaster  politicians have the power to turn around. It is my and many other families’ great fear that it is only a matter of time before a child loses their life.

Children require  therapeutic responses to behavioural issues, rather than being dismissed as criminals and drives more of my mob into further incarceration.  The harm caused to children is very clear.  Over 200,000 people in Australia have voiced their support. We need all Australian state, territory and Commonwealth governments to act now before it is too late.

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