Raise the Age Campaign
(Private Members Statement, 31 March 2022, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
Childhood is a formative period during which experiences have lifelong impacts. It is a time when the brain is still developing, affecting judgement, decision‑making and impulse control. That is why it is vital for children and the community at large that all children are nurtured, supported and educated. But children between the ages of 10 and 13 are considered to have criminal responsibility by the New South Wales justice system, which means they can be put before the courts and sent to detention. Prison—even in the form of youth detention—is no place for children and only sets them up for a lifetime of reoffending and disadvantage, with impacts on future generations. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Children has called on all signatories, which includes Australia, to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years and a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, medical, legal and human rights organisations has established the Raise the Age campaign to urge all Australian governments to take this action.
Tonight I speak in support of this campaign. Criminalisation of children results in significant harm to them. The experience with police, courts and detention makes them more likely to reoffend and distrust authority, and the time in detention affects mental health and disrupts education. The burden of this damaging policy is disproportionately felt by First Nations children, who make up 65 per cent of children in detention. But it does not have to be like this. There are no safety benefits to criminalising offending behaviour in 10- to 13-year-olds. Evidence shows that raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 would produce community benefits. Most comparable countries have a higher age of criminal responsibility without any increased crime rates. Many countries deal with child offending by working with families and support services.
A clear and easy pathway from criminalising children in this State was recently set out in a UNSW Centre for Crime, Law and Justice report entitledReplacing the Youth Justice System for Children Aged 10 to 13 Years in New South Wales: A Best Interests Response. It shows how we could build on a range of existing local community wellbeing, education and family support programs in partnership with Aboriginal community organisations and families. Responses would differ depending on the seriousness of the behaviour and the young person's strengths and needs. In the very rare cases of children engaging in harmful violent behaviour, the system could incorporate an acute response model co‑led by police and youth outreach workers; crisis accommodation if the child cannot return home and does not pose an immediate risk of harm, with wraparound support provided; restorative justice approaches to ensure the child understands the impacts of their behaviours, with victims given support through recognition payments, counselling and conferencing options; and secure residential placements in extreme cases where there is an immediate risk of harm—but only as a last resort and as a form of protection rather than punishment.
Offending behaviour would be treated as a sign of a child's needs, with the approach orientated towards the child's best interests. Increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 14 would immediately help us work towards Closing the Gap targets, while making a real difference to young First Nations people's lives. It would respect self-determination for communities. The Australian Capital Territory has committed to increasing the age of criminal responsibility and has begun consultation on the way forward. Our low age of criminal responsibility is a key driver of children's contact with police and the criminal justice system, which only leads to more offending and criminal activity in the community. There is no safety benefit. But, more importantly, it has disastrous long‑term impacts on children and their families. I call on the Government and the House to show leadership and work together in a multi-partisan way to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 14.