Calls mount to raise the age of criminal responsibility after the release of report into alternative justice models.

Commissioned by the Australian Capital Territory Government, the review was led by Emeritus Professor Morag McArthur in partnership with Aboriginal consultancy Curijo and Dr Aino Suomi from the Australian National University (ANU).

It recommends an alternative model to support at-risk children and their families after the age of criminal responsibility is raised in the ACT.

Narungga woman and Co-Chair Change the Record, Cheryl Axleby, said the recommendations will work to close the gap on youth justice outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

“Every state and territory government criminalises and imprisons our children at far higher rates than non-Indigenous children. We welcome this step from the ACT Government to change these harmful laws, and instead provide support and services to children and their families,” she said.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children “bear the brunt” of bad policies and bad policing, Axleby said.

“Our kids suffer when governments build new prisons instead of investing in adequate housing, supports in schools and family services.”

“This ACT report shows how governments can do things differently, by supporting our kids to thrive instead of locking them away.”

The report highlights that children who come into contact with the justice system have multiple physical and mental health needs and often significant underlying trauma and disability.

The report found their needs are often not addressed by the current service system. Agencies within the system often fail to work together and can’t meet current levels of demand.

A major recommendation of the report establishing a Multidisciplinary Therapeutic Panel which would make service delivery decisions for children with complex and challenging needs.

Also recommended was a new wraparound service which can develop individualised child and family-centred plans, using Family Decision Making practises to guide service delivery.

The report called for strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation on the Panel and in the wraparound service’s workforce.

The report was released today by the Territory’s Attorney General Shane Rattenbury, who said territory can provide better alternatives to custody for children under 14.

“In committing to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility, we also recognise the reality that some children and young people can, and do, cause harm to themselves or others,” he said.

“The ACT Government must have effective systems in place to support these children and young people, and their families, as well as safeguarding the community, when the age is raised.

“The review clearly shows the work and reforms we need to consider in the coming months and years and highlights the importance of early, coordinated and sustained help for children and their families.”

Keisha Hopgood, Acting Principal Solicitor at the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) called on the New South Wales government to follow the ACT’s lead.

“As a solicitor, there are few experiences more harrowing than representing a child who is so tiny they can’t even see over the dock. It is appalling that kids as young as 10 are imprisoned in Australia,” she said.

“Kids in detention overwhelmingly come from backgrounds of disadvantage – many have been removed from their families, and many have disabilities or cognitive impairments.

“These children are disproportionately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. As a society, we owe these children care and understanding. No exceptions.”

Legislation to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility in the ACT is expected to be introduced in 2022.

By Sarah Smit