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ACT leading the way with historic changes to justice system

Jess Whaler -

The ACT Government has formally announced several major changes to key laws in a bid to improve current performance and trajectory in the justice system.

Plans are now in place to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years of age to 14 years by the year 2025, the ACT Government have also introduced a new right to appeal against a criminal conviction in special circumstances where new evidence emerges.

The latest news come following a commitment by the ACT Government to treat drug abuse as a health concern rather than a criminal offence, by decriminalising of small amounts of illicit substances in the ACT which came into effect this week.

The changes come after what has been a grim year for the ACT Government in some respects, as the Productivity Commission and Justice Reform Initiative both reporting alarming figures regarding the Territory's justice system.

The reports revealed high rates of recidivism for Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons that were paired with vastly disproportionate rates of incarceration for First Nations adults and youth, where an Aboriginal person is 20 times more likely to be imprisoned in Canberra than a non-Aboriginal person, which is the biggest 'justice gap' in Australia, and 20 per cent higher than the average across all jurisdictions.

By raising the age of criminal responsibility the ACT Government is hoping to divert youth away from the criminal justice system and ensure they receive the therapeutic rehabilitative support needed to address the underlying cause of their behaviour.

Attorney General Shane Rattenbury said "children in our community, especially those engaging in harmful behaviour, need our care and attention, not to be locked away in prison".

"I'm grateful to the many passionate people around the ACT and Australia who have helped make this reform possible, especially First Nations campaigners who have championed the need for this reform," he said.

"Raising the age to 12 then 14 will bring the ACT into line with international standards, uphold our human rights obligations, and support positive and just outcomes for both vulnerable young people and the wider ACT community.

"This reform is part of my long-term project as Attorney-General and previously as Justice Minister to establish restorative justice as the norm in the ACT, where we seek to strengthen social bonds and repair relationships, rather than perpetuate an unending cycle of crime and punishment."

Minister for Families and Community Services Rachel Stephen-Smith said raising the age "cannot be simply about delaying interaction with the justice system".

"We need systems in place to support these young people to address the challenges in their lives," she said.

Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith with Worimi and Lardil woman Alex Leon at the final YES Campaign event at Parliament House. (Image: Jess Whaler)

"We know that children and young people who engage in harmful behaviour often experience complex issues related to trauma, abuse, homelessness, neglect and unmet disability and mental health needs.

"Importantly, this reform includes the establishment an alternative service response to deliver effective therapeutic supports for children and young people. An individual, therapeutic and culturally safe approach will also lead to better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people, supporting them to remain connected to family, community, country and culture."

Barbara Causon, the current Advocate, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People in the ACT, said First Nations' children "are currently over-represented in the juvenile justice system and this important reform, along with carefully considered, culturally informed, alternative service responses aims to address this concerning issue".

"The importance of involving our local Aboriginal community in the development and implementation of an alternative service response will go a long way to addressing the significant over-representation of our children in the juvenile justice system and have the potential to improve lifelong outcomes for our First Nations children and young people," she said.

First Nations leader, Bundjalung man and Joe Hedger, who congratulated the ACT Government for their commitment to justice reform by increasing the criminal age of responsibility.

Joe Hedgers (left) with Alicia Payne, Aunty Violet Sheridan, Noah Allan, Paula McGrady and Katy Gallagher at Parliament House. (Image: Jess Whaler - National Indigenous Times)

"A stark and painful truth has endured for far too long - the over-representation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system and the heart-wrenching removal of First Nations children from their families. These issues now call for swift and determined action," he told National Indigenous Times.

"The solution is clear: empower First Nations communities to lead the way. Together, in unity, with local First Nations leaders at the forefront, we can bring lasting change that not only addresses these pressing challenges but set an example for the entire nation, just as we did during the Voice to Parliament campaign.

"As a community that prides itself on progressiveness, very little has progressed for First Nations people. The time has come to rectify this ongoing neglect and to make significant strides toward a brighter future for First Nations people in the ACT.

"The issues of over-representation are interconnected, part of a web of poverty, limited access to education, healthcare, housing and cycles of disadvantage. By collaborating closely with First Nations people and organisations, the ACT Government can unlock the tremendous expertise and insights they bring to the table. This not only addresses immediate challenges but sets the stage for holistic reform in areas like education, healthcare, employment, housing and mental health, ensuring a brighter future for all."

National Indigenous Times has been advised there are some community members who are disappointed that the age has not being raised straight away. Mr Hedger said he understood there needs to be support services in place for the youth to go, rather than incarceration, and this will take time to establish.

Sitting quietly amongst the more bold changes is the newly established First Nations Justice Branch situated within the Justice and Community Safety (JACS) Directorate.

A spokesperson for the Branch told National Indigenous Times that "the role of the branch is to JACS to review our programs through the whole of government commissioning process".

"Commissioning is a new way of designing, funding, and delivering a fit for purpose human services system within the ACT. It is a methodology that ensures our system and the services and programs within it are meeting the needs of our community," they said.

"All of our programs are run by local Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, and we plan to increase our investment in these organisations through the commissioning process.

"We are committed to ensuring services, programs and support can be delivered by community for community. We share the view that Mob knows how best to look after Mob.

"Through these processes of transitioning existing programs across and working with community to develop new initiatives, the Branch has become a trusted partner across JACS, with a reputation for providing advice that is essential to the way the directorate engages with community."

The Justice Branch are currently work with the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT; Clybucca Dreaming; Yeddung Mura Aboriginal Corporation; Winnunga-Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services; Gugan Gulwan Youth Aboriginal Corporation; and Legal Aid ACT.

With regard to the new right to appeal, Attorney-General Rattenbury said the change is "designed to protect a foundational principle of our justice system - that innocent people are not imprisoned".

"While wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice are rare, this reform will make our justice system fairer by improving public confidence that errors of justice can be resolved in a fair, impartial, rational way," he said.

"The reform provides a new right of appeal to people who have previously been found guilty or convicted of crimes in the ACT where new fresh and compelling evidence comes to light that casts serious doubt on the correctness of their conviction. In these circumstances there is now a judicial pathway available to the person to appeal."

Earlier this year the ACT Government announced it was undertaking an Independent Review into the Over Representation of First Nations people in the justice system.

An interim report will be provided by March 2024, before the final review is released late in 2024. It is expected that the report will provide some indication as to how impactful the reform changes have been in the early stages of implements

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