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‘Not good enough’: New bill fails youth justice reform


Morgan Liotta


18/10/2022 4:27:21 PM

The NT Government’s decision to change prison laws has been criticised for not meeting Raise the Age targets based on medical evidence.

Young teenage boy looking sad
The RACGP is part of the Raise the Age campaign which pushed governments to change the age of criminal responsibility to a minimum of 14 years.

The Northern Territory Government has announced new legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years, with the bill widely expected to pass once it is introduced in the next NT Parliament sitting. 
 
But while some NT organisations working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have welcomed the news, the change still falls behind Raise the Age targets, which also align with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommendations of a minimum of 14 years of age.
 
‘Twelve is better than 10, but it’s still not good enough,’ Dr James Best, RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health Chair, told newsGP in response to the recent announcement from the NT Government.
 
‘This is [also] a cultural issue … the majority [in youth detention] are Aboriginal children, which is a disgrace.’
 
The RACGP has publicly backed the Raise the Age campaign and co-signed letters sent to the Council of Attorneys-General  in 2021 which called for action and outlined why 14 should be the minimum age that someone can be detained.
 
The 2021 letters point to evidence that children in the Australian youth justice system have high rates of additional neurocognitive impairment, trauma and mental health issues, and those in the 10–13 years age bracket experience ‘immense harm’ when forced through a criminal legal process during their formative developmental phases.
 
Australia’s current laws are ‘out of step with medical consensus regarding child brain development’, the letter states.
 
Reducing overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in the criminal justice system is also part of the national Close the Gap initiative.
 
Dr Best believes raising the age is a human rights issue.
 
‘Children of this age group are not capable of understanding the nature of responsibility of criminal acts,’ he said.
 
‘And putting them [in detention] certainly doesn’t act as a deterrent – what it does do is harm children and also increases their chance of developing behavioural and antisocial behaviours.
 
‘It’s achieved nothing and it causes harm.’
 
According to NT Government data, there is currently only one child under the age of 12 in NT detention centres, and the majority of children under 14 in prisons around the country are aged 12 and 13.
 
Therefore, raising the age to 12 years would release only one child from detention in the NT. Under the Raise the Age reform, many more children remaining in detention would be released.
 
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led health and justice coalition, Change the Record, member of the Raise the Age Steering Committee, released a statement in response to the proposed legislation expressing ‘bitter disappointment’.
 
‘Despite overwhelming calls from medical and legal experts, social services, Aboriginal controlled community organisations and families … the NT Government has thrown away another opportunity to get very young children out of police and prison cells, and support them in community where they belong,’ the statement reads.
 
‘The NT Government has accepted the minimum age of criminal responsibility is far too low.
 
‘There is still time … to do the right thing and amend this legislation to raise the age to at least 14 years old and invest in health and youth services that actually meet the needs of these kids, instead of locking them away.’
 
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Law Centre, also part of the Steering Committee, argues that anything less than 14 years of age should not be celebrated by the national campaign.

The Raise the Age Steering Committee recommends governments should be investing in community-based, therapeutic programs that support children and families.
 
Dr Best agrees that stronger policy action is required.
 
‘The Council of Attorneys-General is being weak on this,’ he said.
 
‘It’s fair to move from 10 to 12 years of age, but it’s not enough, and all the other states and territories need to get uniformity.
 
‘The Council of Attorneys-General are the ones who are dragging their feet. It shows weak leadership and is a harmful way to treat children of this age.’
 
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