Australia’s age of criminal responsibility will remain at 10-years-old until at least 2021 after lawmakers postponed a decision at Monday’s Council of the Attorneys-General meeting.

The decision to raise the age from 10-years-old to 14-years-old was postponed on the basis that more work is needed to be done before the current system is adjusted.

A statement from the Council of Attorneys-General said “participants noted the Working Group’s work to date and noted that the Working Group identified the need for further work to occur regarding the need for adequate processes and services for children who exhibit offending behaviour”.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, between June 2015 and June 2019 the population of youth in detention fluctuated between 806 and 970. Between 2015 and 2019, New South Wales had a population of 313 youth in detention, Queensland had 170, Western Australia 150, Victoria 140, South Australia 53, Northern Territory 39, Tasmania 10 and Australian Capital Territory 9.

In 2019, 53 percent of youth in prison were Indigenous children. Currently, Indigenous youth are 21 times as likely as their non-Indigenous counterparts to be in detention.

According to Raise the Age, in just one year 600 children between 10 and 13 were detained in prison, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children accounting for 70 percent of that number.

The postponing of a decision has caused a stir, with many Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations voicing their concerns.

Co-Chair of Change the Record and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), Cheryl Axleby said: “If governments were serious about ending the mass imprisonment of our people, then they should have taken this straight-forward step today to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10-years-old to 14.”

“We are deeply disappointed in the lack of leadership shown by Attorneys-General today, but this campaign is not over.”

“First Nations people have been fighting for justice for a long time, and we know we have the support of the majority of Australians who understand that prison is no place for a child.”

Tony Bartone, President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), shared his thoughts on the decision.

“The AMA is extremely disappointed that State, Territory and Commonwealth governments have failed to listen to medical advice and raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10-years-old to at least 14,” he said.

“By leaving the age of criminal responsibility at the unacceptably low age of 10-years-old, we run the risk of further traumatising already disadvantaged and vulnerable children instead of giving them the help and healthcare that they deserve.”

Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, Shahleena Musk, described the decision as a “complete disregard for Aboriginal lives”.

“We again call for all State and Territory governments to bring Australia in line with international standards and raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years so we can shut the gates of police and prisons cells to Aboriginal children once and for all. Nothing is stopping State, Territory and Commonwealth governments taking action,” Musk said.

Palawa Elder, Rodney Dillon, spoke to NIT about his thoughts on the recent decision.

Dillon is a member of the Stolen Generations Alliance: Australians for Truth, Justice and Healing, a former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner (ATSIC) for Tasmania, and the current Indigenous Rights Advisor at Amnesty International Australia.

He noted that whilst disappointing, “the door is now ajar to talk about what diversion looks like and to come back to that”.

“I think socially it is building good momentum, so a lot of people are talking about it. So, it won’t make it that hard for the government to do,” he said.

Palawa Elder Rodney Dillon says the door is now ajar for change. Photo supplied by Amnesty International Australia.

Whilst focusing on the potential for change, Dillon can’t help but question the decision.

“We have all this evidence to say that locking kids up doesn’t work, they had no evidence that locking kids up does work. So how did they come to that decision? That’s a question I would ask.”

“As an Aboriginal person I’ve seen all my life people go into that system and never come out of it. And I could have been one of those kids,” Dillon said.

“I fear that there are a lot of kids that have gone into that system that would have made great leaders in their communities.”

Although conceptually designed to rehabilitate, many people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system are unable to disengage.

“Once the kid gets in the system, they never get out of it. Even when they try to get out of it, they can’t get out. Even when they have got help, they still can’t get out of it. It is like quicksand,” said Dillon.

“When a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old, or 12, 13 or 14-year-old kid … [is] in prison at that age, you know where they are going to be when they are 20. Still in the system.

“The retention [in] the prisons and detention centres [is] living proof that they are a failure.”

Dillon is now calling for Indigenous and community-led solutions.

“This is about all the kids. I don’t want to see one set of 10-year-old eyes in a prison system. It really hurts me to see that, when those kids could be doing better somewhere else,” he said.

“Their family may need help, let’s start talking about supporting the families and giving services to those families.”

Dillon urges diversion programs be considered in place of detention.

“They’d be a lot cheaper as kids would be less likely to re-offend and they would be going through that service and coming out the other side better people than when they went into it,” he said.

“That is what the prison systems thinks it can do, but it doesn’t do.”

By Rachael Knowles