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Raising the age of criminal responsibility



I will never forget the day I was told that I was going to become an Aunty. I had just landed back in Australia after a fantastic solo holiday in Thailand. Whilst on the SkyBus, I called my parents to let them know all was well and I was on my way home. I asked dad what I had missed and was told that not one, but two babies were on their way. I just about fell off my bus seat. Several months later, within five weeks of each other my two nephews were born — one tiny, the other plump, and both completely perfect.

Main image: Children crawling dragging the number ten behind them (Illustration Chris Johnston)

Those two little boys turn ten this year, reaching a milestone most Australians celebrate simply as reaching 'double figures'. Yet with these double figures comes a new threat most Australians aren’t aware of: they will also reach the age of criminal responsibility.

Even if most were aware that their ten-year-olds could be taken away and locked up for misdemeanours, it’s not something they would expect to affect their child. For me as an Aboriginal aunty of Aboriginal children, and for most other Aboriginal people, this is a real concern. This concern stems from a history of racist policing and profiling, and from the massive over representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system. We are the most incarcerated people on earth.

Across Australia 65 to 78 per cent of children 10 to 13 years old incarcerated are Aboriginal, yet our kids make up just 5.9 per cent of the childhood population. Of the young children who are imprisoned, 80 per cent will go on to be incarcerated as teens and adults.

As a society, we continue to fail to learn. In 2018 it was noted that 100 per cent of children in juvenile detention in the NT were Indigenous. This is despite the 2016 Royal Commission into the Don Dale Detention Centre after several human rights abuses enacted upon the child detainees were unmasked on a Four Corners report. Despite this Royal Commission, and the various shows of outrage that erupted across the country calling for the closure of Don Dale and the removal of items such as spit hoods, the centre remains open, filled with Aboriginal kids.

Locking vulnerable kids up, rather than supporting them, isn’t making anyone safer. Indeed, it just makes things worse. We know from research key factors leading to kids being imprisoned include poverty, disability and trauma. We know from the inflated numbers for Aboriginal children that structural racism also plays a part. At such young and formative ages to further traumatise these children by putting them through the terrifying experience of being arrested, going before the courts and being locked up away from their families and communities only causes further damage.


'Imagine if instead of criminalising kids, we increased funding to social work organisations, youth centres and other organisations which provide outreach programs for those struggling?'


A couple of weeks ago, in the Victorian Parliament, the second reading of a Greens bill to raise the age of criminality was tabled and debated. It’s incredible to me that The Greens need to take this action and that there should be politicians in the House with them ready to debate that children — primary schoolers — should remain locked up in prisons.

It’s unconscionable, yet it follows an ongoing pattern in this country. “Australia” was founded as a penal colony by the then world superpower. To this day, it remains a place where we preference punishment over community support and services. In 2019, for example, the Andrews government was spending half the national average on social housing yet funnelled $2bn into the building of a 'super prison'. 'Tough on crime' remains an election-winning slogan, even when the roll-out of housing children in adult prisons is blocked by the Supreme Court as being unlawful. Even now, as remandee numbers decreased during the 2020 COVID lockdown, the government fails to commit to exploring other options — options which could benefit socially marginalised youths immensely.

Children in criminal institutions is not proof that some kids are just “bad kids” and need to be locked up. Instead, it is proof of multiple systemic failures and an inability of politicians to think beyond models of punishment. Imagine if instead of criminalising kids, we increased funding to social work organisations, youth centres and other organisations which provide outreach programs for those struggling? What if we ensured that instead of being out on the street, kids had a safe home and space they could go to, particularly when in a violent situation? What if we funded our public education sector with the money going into prisons and policing, so our schools had the capacity to expand support services, inclusive educational opportunities and specialist mentors/advisors? What if, quite simply, we engaged in some real work narrowing the gap between rich and poor in this country?

Australia also needs to examine its overreliance on punishment via a proper truth-telling and treaty process. Perhaps through that, and the extension of proper respect to Indigenous communities, we will begin to see fewer Aboriginal kids locked up and a significantly less racist, more humane and more egalitarian society.

While it’s not the complete answer, I believe that raising the age of criminality is an important stepping stone in undoing the damage the juvenile detention system has done to so many of our children. The legislation in front of Victorian Parliament is an important step in the lessening of transgenerational trauma, particularly in Indigenous communities. I hope that this push will eventually be taken on politically at a national level so other jurisdictions will follow.



Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She is the current Greens candidate for the seat of Cooper in the upcoming Federal elections.

Main image: Prison cell image by DanHenson1 via Getty

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Raise the Age, First Nations, Aboriginal, juvenile detention, Don Dale



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Existing comments

I believe that very few people would disagree that a ten year old child of normal intelligence can tell right from wrong. However, determining the age of criminal responsibility must take into account concerns about child welfare. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are vulnerable due to historical and current disadvantage and the more humane response is to improve all areas of life for Indigenous families. This means a big change in perception by governments and much more listening.

Pam | 15 June 2021  

Thank you for that article Celeste. It is incredible that 10-year-olds can and are being locked up in such numbers. And that they are disproportionately Aboriginal. It’s shameful.

Helen Praetz | 15 June 2021  

Oh Celeste( this is my granddaughter’s name) you have brought tears to my eyes when I read your article.Where to start?? But as a retired teacher I know that education is the key solution. School hours need to change to accomodate at risk students! All high schools could offer lessons to those young adults who are at risk. Staggered days could also increase teacher numbers. My firm belief is to introduce schooling in the summer break. In my area senior colleges are vacant for approximately 3 months each year!! Multi million dollar facilities sitting idol for that time! Think outside the educational box & start to entrench programs which will try & catch those children who are falling through the cracks.

Sue Swift | 15 June 2021  

Absolutely right. The practice of treating ten-year-olds as adults must stop, in the name of our duty to our children and of common justice. What we do now is a disgrace. We have to change the age, and we need to look upstream and downstream of the criminal actions of the young offenders. Upstream, what were the circumstances that contributed to their becoming marginalised in their families and communities? Downstream, what should be happening after the criminal actions? How can we restore what’s been lost, and build up hope and dignity for these young individuals? We must address causes as well as treatment. Anything else is bandaiding.

Joan Seymour | 15 June 2021  

Many thanks, Celeste. A great, and very disturbing, article. We MUST do better.

Richard Olive | 16 June 2021  

‘Greens bill to raise the age of criminality was tabled and debated. It’s incredible to me that The Greens need to take this action and that there should be politicians in the House with them ready to debate that children — primary schoolers — should remain locked up in prisons.’ You can’t punish a person for wrongdoing if he cannot understand it was a wrongdoing but re-siting someone with such an understanding-deficit to a therapeutic accommodation is still a penalty for which legal authorisation is needed. So, at what age do you remove a child from his home for doing something seriously wrong? If the science is that you can understand criminal wrongdoing at 10, then that’s the case. The Jamie Bulger killers were 10. Should they have been sent to live with a kindly secular Franciscan couple with a pitbull sceptical of anything on two legs?

roy chen yee | 16 June 2021  

Roy, the death of Jamie Bulger by the hands of two 10 year old boys was a very rare event that is seared into the memories of all who have known of the case. We collectively mourn for those three children.

Pam | 17 June 2021  

Children are children, we must protect them. Spend money on the source of the problems & stop locking children up. The low age of incarceration is shameful & cruel.

Catherine Wallace | 21 June 2021  

This may be seen as a rather old fashioned approach, with a 'feel good' conclusion, but heck, I've been called a troglodyte before. I was at an 'incident' in Loganlea, Queensland earlier today which made me sit up and think. Bear in mind I've actually worked with Aboriginal colleagues and clients in my work as a Case Manager in the former DETYA in Victoria, NSW, Queensland and WA for a considerable time. I was heading towards my not-quite-favourite, but well liked and affordable, Golden Arch. There were three young adolescent female Aboriginals proceeding thither a little before me. One had a cap gun and was 'shooting' another. It was quite loud. The trio reached some steps just before Maccas and sat down for a smoko. Shortly before I reached there a police car pulled up and a huge Queensland cop got out. He spoke to the girls about noise and frightening people. No arrests were made and he drove off. The girls sat there smoking. I went into Maccas. The girls continued on smoking outside. After a period the Maccas manager came out and asked the girls to move on as they were in the car park area and it was very busy. They left. They are well known and liked. Just bored. Nothing serious happened. No one got too hassled.

Edward Fido | 21 June 2021  

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