Last week the Federal Parliament passed a motion agreeing in principle to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Australia.

Currently, the age of criminal responsibility in Australia sits at 10 years-of-age, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has recommended Australia raise the age to 14.

Amnesty International Australia has been campaigning for the age rise for many years. In light of the motion, the organisation has called for a national moratorium on the arresting of children under the age of 14.

In 2019, the Council of Attorneys-General answered evidence from CRC and international experts that addressed the harm inflicted on incarcerated children by calling for a review.

Amnesty International Australia made a submission to the Council of Attorneys-General Age of Criminal Responsibility Working Group Review which called on State and Territory Governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years-of-age, transition all children under this age out of prison in one year and abolish the notion of doli incapax, which means ‘incapable of doing harm’ in Latin.

Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Rights Lead, Lidia Thorpe, said Amnesty has been campaigning for a number of years to raise the age so that children below 14 cannot be incarcerated at the current rates.

“If we were to raise the age today, that would mean 600 children would be released, and the majority of those children are on remand. This is something that would make a difference immediately to those children’s lives but also families and communities of those children,” Thorpe said.

“This is not just a black issue; this is about all children. We need to be in line with international standards, and that is 14 years-of-age.”

Calling for a moratorium on arrests, Amnesty hopes police across the nation will halt the arresting of children so there’s time to investigate and invest in place-based and community driven solutions.

“People have solutions to youth justice and our families’ and communities’ needs to self-determine for themselves what is best for their children, instead of the police arresting these kids and incarcerating them.

“Research proves this is not helping these children, in fact, it is hindering their growth and development as children.

“We are asking all police, please stop arresting our children whilst the Government and the Attorney-General make a final decision on raising the age of criminal responsibility.”

Thorpe believes the effect of youth incarceration stretches further than what is commonly thought.

“This is about survival – the survival of a people, the First People of this country.”

“Having our children incarcerated at the rate they are, particularly in the Northern Territory, is criminal in itself. This is destroying families, it is destroying communities, it is also destroying culture, connection, language, dance, song, everything that it means to our survival as a people.”

Thorpe said Aboriginal children raised by family and community are raised with strength, resilience and knowledge about what it is to be an Aboriginal person.

“Locking our kids up is just a symptom of a bigger problem. It is not a solution. It is only making matters worse.”

Amnesty strongly stands behind the idea of place-based solutions, informed and driven by community.

“There are different solutions in different communities and that’s where I think that self-determination is very important.”

“What works for kids in the Northern Territory may not work for kids in Victoria or Queensland. We have to listen to the communities and to the old people about what they believe are the solutions.”

Thorpe’s mother worked for Victorian Aboriginal Childcare Agency and would take Thorpe to camps that brought together Aboriginal children from different backgrounds to find strength in culture.

“We were treated by our own people, as just Aboriginal kids who need to learn the culture, need to be connected. There was no difference to out-of-home care kids, to those kids that like myself who lived at home with my Mum and went to school – my experience was different. But together, we weren’t different.

“A lot of people will say, ‘What else is there? There’s nothing positive going on in community.’ Well actually, there is. We are doing some research around that so that we can articulate that more clearly.

“Our community can [keep our kids safe], but they need the resources to do that. I think that once all States and Territories … raise the age of criminal responsibility, they need to also put the resources alongside that.”

“We cannot have any more barriers put in front of our kids.”

Self-determination needs to be that leading principle so that we can know what community needs what because it will always be different. A blanket solution won’t work because we all speak different languages, so they need to adapt accordingly.

“It’s a national embarrassment that we are locking up our babies. And the more people that understand this and know about it, the more I believe the better our chances are in government changing.

“We need everyone to continue the pressure on their local Members of Parliament and support Amnesty’s campaign to raise the age.”

By Rachael Knowles