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Coalition of experts call on NSW government to raise age of criminal responsibility

Dechlan Brennan -
nsw

A coalition of legal, First Nations and Human Rights organisations have come together to call on the NSW government to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14.

The group, which also includes unions and peak bodies in non-government sectors, says they bring a deep understanding of the negative impacts criminalising children has as well as knowledge and expertise on how to do better as a community.

In a statement, the group said better outcomes and a safer community wouldn't be achieved by doing things that don't work.

"Dragging children as young as ten through police stations and courts, strip-searching them and locking them up causes harm and fails to deliver on community safety," the statement said.

"In NSW, we can raise the age to 14 to make our communities safer through evidence-informed and community-led responses and alternatives."

The campaigners hope that the Minns Labor government - elected in March after more than a decade of Coalition rule - will approach the issue with a new perspective.

Lead campaigner for Raise the Age, Emily Mayo, says criminalising children not only causes them harm, but hurts other children, families and the community.

"Services, communities and workers are coming together in NSW to support raising the age because we know the issues, understand the problems and can build the alternatives," she said.

"The NSW Government has a unique opportunity to show leadership by partnering with these organisations and investing in models that are better for kids and better for communities."

The United Nations recommends 14 as the age of criminal responsibility, which is supported by doctors, legal experts and the recently released Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

Statistics from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show in the 12 months up to December last year, almost 3000 children under the age of 14 had interactions with officers, including being taken in for questioning or charged with a crime.

In the same time period, 1,115 children had matters go to court, 1,647 were cautioned and 188 were referred to a youth justice conference.

In 2021, the attorney generals of every state agreed to move towards raising the age from ten to 12.

In April year, NSW attorney general Michael Daley indicated his government would be open to recommendations and/or findings presented by the age of criminal responsibility working group, who will present to the standing council of attorneys general. The next meeting is in December.

Recidivism rates are significant across Australia. In NSW, 49 per cent of prisoners released were incarcerated again within two years.

Experts told National Indigenous Times that the trauma of incarcerating children will only have disastrous consequences for the community in the long term.

Executive Director of Justice Reform Initiative, Dr Mindy Sotiri noted the "overwhelming evidence that early contact with police increases the likelihood of ongoing criminal justice system involvement."

CEO of the ALS NSW/ACT, Karly Warner, said children belonged in playgrounds and with their families, "not in police lock-up and prisons."

"In NSW and across Australia, the legal system traps Aboriginal children at a far higher rate than non-Indigenous kids," she said.

Ms Warner said ALS NSW/ACT was proud to partner with the NSW government to help Close the Gap in the state.

"Together, we're working to ensure policies impacting the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are developed in full and genuine partnership and that we reduce the rate of Aboriginal children in custody by 30 per cent," she said.

"Raising the age of legal responsibility to 14 is a sensible and evidence-backed step to achieving this goal, and we are calling on the NSW Government to get it done without delay."

Victoria has committed to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 by the end of next year and 14 by 2027. Last month the Yoorrook Justice Commission called on the state to stop jailing children under the age of 16.

The Northern Territory government raised the age to 12 in August whilst the ACT has introduced legislation to immediately lift the age to 12, and 14 by 2025.

"The facts are well established. What we do now does not work," Ms Mayo said.

"The NSW Government must show the political will to build a better way – with us."

Dr Sotiri said community safety comes about through investing in community-led initiatives, not "managing' children in the justice system."

"There is an opportunity right now for both sides of politics in NSW to show real leadership in Raising the Age to 14 and committing to resourcing the evidence-based alternatives that we know will build a safer community for everybody," she said.

Redfern Legal Centre presented data showing over the last financial year, 56 children under 18 had been strip-searched, including 25 girls - three of whom were aged 12. 11 of the children and teenagers strip-searched were Indigenous.

Earlier this year saw over 60,000 people sign a petition urging the NSW government to both raise the age and stop children from as young as ten from being arrested and strip-searched.

The Raise the Age Lead Group includes the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) NSW/ACT, AbSec, Amnesty International Australia, ANTAR, Australian Services Union NSW & ACT Services Branch, Community Legal Centres NSW, Just Reinvest NSW, Justice Reform Initiative, New South Wales Council of Social Service (NCOSS), NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL), NSW Teachers Federation, Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Youth Action.

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