Save the Children is urging the Attorneys-General to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility across Australia to at least 14, in line with medical evidence and international standards.
Investing in early intervention is more effective at preventing anti-social behavior and making communities safe than criminalizing children, the child rights agency argues in its submission to a review into the age of criminal responsibility ordered by the Attorneys-General last November. Submissions close today.
“Putting children under the age of 14 through the criminal justice system is counter-productive to building safer communities, often trapping the child in a cycle of crime and disadvantage from which many never escape,” said Matt Gardiner, Save the Children’s Australian Services Executive Director.
“When children engage in anti-social behaviour, it’s often a sign they are actually battling mental health difficulties, cognitive impairment, or trauma related to abuse or neglect they have experienced themselves.
“Rather than putting these children through the court system, we should be investing in approaches that address their needs, direct them towards support services, and help them to understand and take responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour.
“We see the benefits of early intervention in our youth programs every single day.”
Save the Children runs preventive, early intervention and diversionary initiatives in every state in Australia and the Northern Territory. It provides the ‘backbone’ for the award winning Youth Partnership Project in Perth’s south eastern corridor – an area of high-density youth crime – which is a game-changing multi-agency initiative providing wrap around support for disengaged and at-risk young people.
The program has been instrumental in turning around the lives of children who otherwise would have been at significant risk of ending up in the criminal justice system.
“We know that the younger a child is at their first sentence, the more likely they are to reoffend, including as an adult, and the severity of their offending is also likely to increase,” Mr Gardiner said.
“Locking up kids under the age of 14 also disproportionately harms those who are already disadvantaged, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. That’s why we need a change of approach, starting by raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14.
“State and territory governments are increasingly realising that the economics don’t stack up. Taxpayers money should be spent on what works. More children going through the criminal justice system has immense costs, not just in detention, but the loss of employment and deterioration of skills as youth often enter a life cycle of offending.”
In its submission, Save the Children refers to medical evidence on children’s level of brain development. The evidence is clear: children at such young ages cannot understand the consequences of their actions, and their decision-making capacity and impulse control are far from fully developed.
United Nations human rights bodies – most recently, the Committee on the Rights of the Child – have also repeatedly called on Australia to raise its minimum age to at least 14 from the current age of 10, which is well below international minimum standards. Fourteen is the most common age of criminal responsibility internationally.