We worked with children in prison. They should never have been there

As lawyers we did all we could to keep Aboriginal children out of prison. Children who should never have been there.

Now, we are fighting to shut the door to police and prison cells in response to young children by raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to at least 14. This simple law change would ensure some of our most vulnerable children are kept safe from the trauma, abuse and the life-long damage that prisons inflict on children going through crucial stages of development and growth.

Between us, we’ve assisted Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Victoria. Children whose lives were unfairly impacted by punitive youth legal systems built on discriminatory laws and policies and fuelled by discriminatory policing.

This system does not operate in isolation, and does not treat all children and young people equally. Too often, Aboriginal children are failed by an ill-equipped and outdated education system that fails to recognise and respond to the needs, strengths, culture and experiences of Aboriginal children.

They are let down by a broken child protection system that demonises Aboriginal kids and their families. The parliamentary report Doing Time - Time for Doing - Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system showed that police are more likely to arrest Aboriginal children and lay formal charges against them rather than issuing a warning or helping them find a different track, and Aboriginal kids are more likely to be locked up in prison as they wait for their day in court instead of being released on bail.

That’s why even though Aboriginal children account for just 6 per cent of young people in Australia aged 10-17 they make up around 60 per cent of kids locked away in youth prisons, and almost 100 per cent of the kids locked up in the Northern Territory.

We have seen time and time again Aboriginal children charged and hauled before courts for "crimes" that would never have been contemplated for children of middle class or wealthy homes – like charging a child with offences of "criminal damage" and "disorderly behaviour" for throwing tomato sauce around the kitchen of a residential care facility.

Aboriginal children are removed from their families, culture and communities at horrifying rates. They are then criminalised by these very same institutions that removed them and promised to keep them safe.

The criminal legal system is a system built on coercion, control and punishment. It breaks children down instead of building them up. Children who come in contact with the criminal legal system are more likely to die an early death, to reoffend and to stay in the criminal legal system - including as adults. Our laws are setting up very young children to fail. We have never seen a child enter a youth prison and come out unscathed.

Children need care, love and support so they can reach their full potential. Not handcuffs and prisons. To have the best chance of a good life, children need guidance and support including better access to mental health care, mentoring, education and employment opportunities. That’s why we are calling on states, territory and Commonwealth governments to urgently raise the age of criminal responsibility from the age of 10 to the age of 14 to keep kids – and our communities – safe.

Shahleena Musk and Sophie Trevitt sit on the Steering Committee of the #RaiseTheAge Campaign. It is a national coalition consisting of the Australian Medical Association, Law Society of Australia, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, Change the Record, Human Rights Law Centre, Amnesty International Australia, Royal Australasian College of Physicians and Public Health Association of Australia.


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