Youth detention policy labelled ‘stupid, lazy, outrageous and immoral’

Morgan Liotta

20/05/2021 5:15:51 PM

More than 70 organisations, including the RACGP, have called on all governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

Prison fence.
On an average night in Australia in 2020, there were 798 young people in youth detention.

A 10-year-old child behind bars, being arrested, or presenting in court. An unsettling reality in Australia, which has long-lasting impacts.
According to latest data, on an average night in 2020, there were 798 young people in youth detention, with 80% aged 10–17 years, and 91% male.
Nearly two thirds (64%) of these young people in detention were unsentenced, either awaiting the outcome of their court matter or sentencing.
Experts are concerned that these children are more likely to reoffend, with Australia’s flawed youth justice legal system ‘setting them up to fail’.
As a result, the RACGP and more than 70 other organisations this week signed the 19 May statement to the Meetings of Attorneys-General (MAG), which strongly supports the Raise the Age campaign and advocates for the removal of criminal responsibility for children aged 10 years old, to at least 14 years. 

‘It is right and proper the college fully supports this move to raise the age,’ Dr James Best, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health, told newsGP.
‘For the [Federal] Government to not do so is stupid, lazy, outrageous and immoral.

‘Stupid because it clearly shows a complete lack of understanding of brain development and capability of children in this age group and the impact of the nature of [criminal punishment].

‘Lazy because [the Government] has had years of reporting and inquiries and recommendations, which they continue to not pick up.
‘Outrageous because more than 600 children each year in Australia are being locked up.

‘And it is immoral because we have a duty to society to protect our children and not treat them as political footballs.’
The publicly released statement to the MAG, builds on individual submissions from various organisations and provides extensive evidence for the need of the reform.
In a 2018 meeting, the MAG (then the Council of Attorneys-General) established the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility Working Group to examine whether to raise the age of criminal responsibility, pledging that the Working Group would ‘draw from relevant jurisdictional and international experience, and report back within 12 months’.
In December 2019, more than 12 months after the its original commitment to report back, the Working Group called for submissions from the general public to answer 11 detailed questions on whether to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and what an alternative system would look like.
The advocating signatories argue that governments already have a sufficient body of evidence to support the reform, with 88 of the 93 submissions from legal, medical and youth organisations to the Working Group’s inquiry giving clearance for their views to be made public.
‘After over two years of inaction, with substantial evidence to support raising the age, it is now time for action. We call on all levels of government to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years of age,’ they wrote in the 19 May submission.
‘The evidence overwhelmingly shows that when children as young as 10 years of age are forced through a criminal legal process during their formative developmental phases, they suffer immense harm.’

GP Dr James Best says Australian society has a duty to protect children and not treat them as political footballs.

Recent figures show that children under 14 who enter the justice system are more likely to be experiencing underlying trauma, have an undiagnosed disability, and come from a low-socioeconomic background.
Almost 70% of 10-year-olds in detention have received child protection services at some point. Australia also has the highest known rate in the world of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the juvenile detention system.
The Northern Territory Government last week passed changes to youth justice laws, described as bringing the ‘toughest ever’ consequences for young people.

The changes have been criticised as going against the recommendations made by the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, and are expected to lead to more young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison and deaths in custody.
On an average night in June 2020, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander young people aged 10–17 remain 17 times as likely as young non‑Indigenous Australians to be in detention.

Just under half (48%) of all young people in detention on an average night in June 2020 were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, with the population making up just 6% of the Australian population aged 10–17.
A key target as part of the Closing the Gap initiative is reducing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the criminal justice system.
‘We just know that prison systems are not a good place for children to be, to help them grow up to healthy adults,’ RACGP Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Medical Advisor and GP Dr Tim Senior told newsGP.
‘I think about the children we see here in the Aboriginal medical service I work in … some with different sorts of behavioural difficulties, but in all those circumstances, never do we think “what’s required here is prison”.
‘It seems surprising that there is even any debate about whether children between 10 and 13 should be imprisoned at all – it’s not a criminal, but a health issue.’

Dr Senior believes that if families are simply provided with adequate supports to meet their child needs, those children tend to thrive.
‘If you think about children … at that age – they’re still learning so much. And with the development of their brains and decision making, it just seems crazy to [potentially] hold them criminally responsible,’ he said.
Echoing Dr Best, the ‘unbelievable’ laws that exist and efforts to raise the age are ‘just another example’ of how risk to children isn’t taken seriously, according to Dr Senior.
‘Every child should be given the best start in life and have an option for that,’ he said.
‘The impact in terms of lifelong learning and what that means for their ability to complete education and to get jobs … [criminal responsibility] puts so many limits on that and certainly presents many barriers in their way.
‘It’s important they have health contact too, with GPs for example, as we’re creating work for our colleagues, generations down the line.’

The signatories, along with other state-based advocates, say that raising the age of criminal responsibility would have an ‘immediate and generational impact’ on the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system, as well as the associated short- and long-term consequences.
‘The low age of criminal responsibility disproportionately impacts these children and is a key driver of their contact with police and the justice system,’ the submission to the MAG states.
‘Children belong in schools and playgrounds, connected to their families, communities and culture, not placed in handcuffs, held in watchhouses or locked away in prisons.’
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Dr Adam Louws   21/05/2021 9:41:36 AM

As someone who had his house broken into and threatened by a gang of under 10s with a hammer, seriously RACGP? Could you be more out of touch?