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Justice system puts troubled teens on downward spiral

Rudi Maxwell -

Approaches to youth justice for the youngest children who can be charged in Australia have little therapeutic or developmental benefit and fly in the face of international human rights advice.

A report by the Australian Institute of Criminology, looking at police and children's court outcomes for kids aged 10 to 13, found current approaches continue to criminalise them.

The research found children charged with early offending are more likely to be Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, to have child protection involvement and to have a neuro-disability.

The report shows too many young children end up being 'managed' in criminal justice system settings, rather than receiving specialist support and care in the community, Justice Reform Initiative executive director Mindy Sotiri said.

"We know that the contact with the youth justice system makes it more likely that someone will become entrenched in the adult justice system and we know that too many children who have experienced trauma and are living with disabilities and mental health conditions are criminalised rather than cared for," Dr Sotiri said.

Indigenous kids were almost twice as likely to have their matters proceed to children's court. (Image: Aaron Bunch/AAP PHOTOS)

Children aged 10 to 13 years comprised 7.4 per cent of all children under statutory youth justice supervision, or 667 of the 8982 children under supervision, in 2021/22.

However, the proportion of youth justice clients who were aged 10 to 13 years varied considerably between jurisdictions, from 1.9 per cent in Victoria to 14.8 per cent in the Northern Territory.

Indigenous children were significantly over-represented, particularly at the youngest age, and were almost twice as likely as non-Indigenous kids to have their matters proceed to children's court.

More than a fifth (21 per cent) of children aged 10 under supervision (community orders or detention) were Indigenous.

The study highlighted substantial levels of victimisation among younger children with alleged offending, with half already experiencing a prior intervention order, mostly as complainants or victim-survivors.

"It is tragic and inhumane that we are incarcerating small children who are victims of family violence," said Maggie Munn, director of the non-profit Change the Record that advocates to reduce the number of Indigenous people in prison.

"We know that children who come into contact with the criminal legal system have experienced significant trauma in their short lives.

"The sad reality in this country is that current law and order responses are criminalising victim/survivors of family violence, poverty, and homelessness, as well as those with disabilities," the director added.

Most alleged offending was non-violent (71 per cent), particularly among 10-year-olds (82 per cent), the report found, but significant resources are nonetheless expended in the investigation, prosecution, defence and legal adjudication of younger children charged with offending.

"A clear-eyed policy response requires our leaders to acknowledge the failure of the youth justice system and requires also a commitment to significantly invest in the evidence-based alternatives that work," Dr Sotiri said.

These include early intervention, prevention and diversion programs, case management services, alternative court models and First Nations place-based programs, she said, and restorative justice programs that are proven to turn lives around and reduce reoffending.

Justice Reform Initiative's Mindy Sotiri is calling for a clear-eyed response from the government. (James Ross/AAP PHOTOS)

Supportive and preventative interventions are likely to have the greatest impact for children charged with early offending, according to the institute of criminology.

The study findings suggest that justice responses, as opposed to statutory community supervision or detention, are not currently used as a last resort in responding to this group of children, and that there is significant scope to improve early therapeutic, educational and social support.

On Friday a coalition of legal, Indigenous and human rights organisations published an open letter to Victoria's attorney-general calling on the state government to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

That includes the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) whose chief executive Jill Gallagher said contact with the criminal justice system exacerbates intergenerational trauma and cycles of disadvantage, undermining children's health and wellbeing.

"In Victoria we have seen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 12 and 13 locked up when they should be thriving at school and playing sport on the weekend," she said.

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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