The ACT Government has released a discussion paper calling for expert and community input on raising the age of criminal responsibility within the Territory.

Released on Wednesday, the announcement reflects the ACT Government’s decision to become the first jurisdiction to commit to raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14-years-old.

The ACT Government has released the paper calling for advice on how young people involved in harmful behaviours should be held responsible.

“When children are imprisoned, it sets the trajectory for the rest of their lives and increases the risk they will be involved in the adult criminal justice system as they grow up,” said ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury.

He said the current age of criminal responsibility, which sits at 10-years-old is “well and truly out of step with the rest of the world” and said that Australia has been “chastised” by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The ACT Government hopes to explore responses that sit outside of the traditional criminal justice system, and has interest in therapeutic care and accommodation, embedding restorative approaches and supporting victims.

“Reducing children and young people’s interaction with the criminal justice system benefits all community members,” said the Attorney-General.

“Meeting the needs of at-risk children and young people and their families earlier in their lives, will ultimately lead to lower levels of offending and recidivism. This is particularly important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities given their overrepresentation in the justice system.”

ACT Minister for Families and Community Services Rachel Stephen-Smith said that despite the small rates of children under 14 being incarcerated in the ACT, any interaction with the criminal justice system can be traumatic for a young person.

“In raising the age of criminal responsibility, we therefore need to strengthen our capacity to identify children and young people who need more help and to provide therapeutic interventions so we’re not just delaying engagement with the justice system but creating different trajectories for some of our most complex and traumatised young people,” she said.

ACT Minister for Youth Justice Emma Davidson hopes raising the age will minimise the need for the Bimberi Youth Justice Centre.

“This work gives us the opportunity to reimagine our entire youth justice system, making Bimberi Youth Justice Centre the last resort for as many young people as possible across all age groups,” she said.

“To do this, we must address the social determinants which lead young people into the youth justice system, such as trauma, family violence, disability and mental ill-health. Services must be holistic, accessible, and strength-based so that young people and families are supported, particularly when they are experiencing multiple complex issues.

“Young people need support and connection, with a well-resourced sector, to help them and their families during challenging times or crisis. This will create a system of early support that diverts all young people and children in the ACT away from imprisonment.”

Change the Record Co-Chair Cheryl Axleby welcomes the release of the ACT Government’s discussion paper.

“We welcome this step towards legislating to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 in the ACT. We hope all States and Territories follow the ACT’s leadership and change the laws that can send children as young as 10 years old to prison,” she said.

“The ACT Government’s discussion paper is a way of engaging with the community as the ACT embarks on reforms that will make the community safer and stronger by providing children with help and support when they need it.”

Axleby notes that Indigenous youth are targeted, arrested and detained at far higher rates than non-Indigenous children.

“If governments are serious about closing the gap they must invest in programs and services which give children the chance to learn from their mistakes without being harmed in prison,” she said.

“Every day a child spends in prison can cause lifelong harm to that child’s growth and development. There are alternatives to prison that are already working — we just need politicians to fund them. For too long Australia has been imprisoning very young children and causing them — and our whole community — harm.”

The submissions in response to the discussion paper will stand beside an independent review of service gaps. The independent review is being led by Emeritus Professor Morag McArthur in partnership with the Australian National University (ANU) and Aboriginal consultancy Curijo.

The discussion paper can be accessed here and will be open for comment until August 5.

By Rachael Knowles