Pressure builds on governments to ‘raise the age’

Matt Woodley

24/04/2023 4:44:45 PM

More than 120 medical, legal and social service organisations have written to the attorneys-general about the age of criminal responsibility.

Imprisoned child
Research suggests children under the age of 14 may not have the required capacity to be criminally responsible.

‘Raise the Age’ campaign supporters have urged Australia’s state, territory and federal governments to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years old to at least 14.
The renewed call is signed by 124 medical, legal, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and social services providers, as well as peak bodies including the RACGP. It reiterates that medical evidence and internationally accepted standards ‘make it clear’ that 14 should be the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
Sent ahead of the upcoming Standing Council of Attorneys-General (SCAG), the letter also notes that previous commitments to increase the age of responsibility have so far been left unfulfilled.
‘We understand that … a possible agenda item for this meeting is the ongoing consideration of raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility,’ it reads.
‘Our organisations strongly urge you to use this opportunity to ensure all states and territories and the Federal Government urgently raise the age … to at least 14.
‘We note that the SCAG previously agreed to develop a proposal to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, and that the Northern Territory has passed legislation to raise the age to 12.
‘This is in contrast to the recommendations of the Draft Final Report 2020 – Council of Attorneys-General Age of Criminal Responsibility Working Group which recommends that the age is raised to 14 with no exceptions.’
The letter also references the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which recently described Australia’s current age of criminal responsibility as being ‘very low’, while recommending that the age be raised in accordance with international standards.
‘Our coalition states in no uncertain terms that raising the age to only 12 and/or raising the age for some conduct, but carving out other conduct as exemptions is inconsistent with health and medical evidence and will not be endorsed by our organisations,’ the letter states.
‘The call of the Raise the Age campaign has always been to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 with no carve outs and we will continue to run a strong, loud and unified campaign until this is achieved.’
Dr James Best, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health previously told newsGP that raising the age of criminal responsibility 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.’
Medical evidence for raising the age
The letter contends that medical and health evidence shows that detention is harmful for all children, and that internationally accepted human rights standards call for an increase to 14 years as the ‘bare minimum age’ of criminal responsibility needed to protect the rights and health of young children.
Medical consensus regarding child brain development shows that children under the age of 14 are undergoing significant growth and development, which means that they may not have the required capacity to be criminally responsible,’ it states.
Research shows that immaturity can affect a number of areas of cognitive functioning, including impulsivity, reasoning and consequential thinking.
‘Scientific advances related to the understanding of child cognitive development favour a minimum age of criminal responsibility of at least 14 years, taking into account the time it takes for the adolescent brain to mature.’
It also points to evidence demonstrating that children in Australia’s criminal legal system have high rates of additional neurocognitive impairment, trauma and mental health issues.
‘Given the high rate of neurodevelopmental delay experienced by children in youth centres of detention, behaviours often reflect the developmental age of the child, which may be several years below their chronological age,’ the letter reads.
‘Judging criminal responsibility on the basis of a chronological age is inappropriate for children who may have a much lower developmental age due to medical and developmental conditions as well as socio-political factors including trauma and poverty.
‘The evidence overwhelmingly shows that when children in the very young age bracket of 10–13 years of age are forced through a criminal legal process during their formative developmental phases, they suffer immense and enduring harm.
‘Worse still, this compounds the disadvantage they were experiencing prior to their first contact with the legal system, particularly for those who are chronically over-represented in the criminal legal system.’
In addition to the medical rationale behind lifting the age of criminal responsibility, the co-signatories say that the move would have an ‘immediate impact’ on Australia’s ability to meet its Closing the Gap targets, especially around overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.
At the moment, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent more than 60% of all children in detention in Australia on an average day.
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