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Raise the Age: the NSW Government can do better for kids

Why raising the age of criminal responsibility is key to solving the homelessness crisis

It is simple: by treating children as young as ten as criminals, we continue to ruin lives before they have truly begun. In NSW and throughout Australia, a child as young as 10 can be arrested, remanded in custody, convicted and held in detention. Australia has faced international condemnation for having one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world – the average minimum age of criminal responsibility globally is 14. This is fundamentally flawed and displays the gap between the scientific understanding of childhood mental development and legislation today. Punishing children as young as ten does not reflect the reality of their ability to understand criminality.  

 

A minimum age of criminality responsibility of 10 years is a human rights breach and is causing harm to children, families and communities.

The United Nations has made their stance on Australia’s treatment of children clear: it is unacceptable. From December 2022 to December 23, 22 ten year olds were proceeded against by the NSW police. Overall, almost 3000 children under 14 were proceeded against by police. In this time, 188 children were taken to youth detention facilities. This links to a broader concern with NSW’s justice system, that when incidents occur, the safety and health of children is placed last. Disturbing data released by the Redfern Legal Centre showed that in the 2022-23 financial year, 56 children were stripped searched.  

 

Criminalising children, through arrests, charges, sentencing and detention, does not work to keep children or society safe and makes life harder for many young people already facing discrimination.

Detention is ineffective in preventing and reducing children’s offending behaviours.  Children experiencing difficulties and disadvantages, life circumstances which they cannot control, should be met with public health support, not the justice system.  

 Arguments for increasing minimum age of criminal responsibility include:  

  • Children are still undergoing significant brain and social development. Scientific evidence shows that children as young as ten do not have a full understanding of the severity and impacts of their actions.  
  • Engaging young people in the criminal justice system makes it more likely that young people will offend in the future. It doesn’t work as a deterrent and tends to entrench young people in the justice system. 
  • Criminalising children, particularly placing young people in detention, separates children from their families. Evidence shows that close relationships with families are key to children and young people’s lifelong wellbeing.  
  • There are disproportionate impacts of a low minimum age for criminal responsibility on children with disabilities, mental illnesses and children involved with the child protection system. 
  • Young people from remote and very remote parts of Australia and those from the lowest socioeconomic areas, are more likely than their peers to be under youth justice supervision.  
  • There is a strong evidence base on effective alternatives to supervision and detention. There are a range of therapeutic interventions and diversion programs that have been demonstrated to have long-term positive impacts for young people. 

 

This is a significant issue of discrimination and inequality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Only 4.5% of young people aged 10-17 years in Australia are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, in 2022-2023, 49% of young people under youth justice supervision and 53.3% of those in youth detention are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.  This concern was raised by the United Nations Committee Against Torture during its sixth review of Australia’s justice system in 2022.  

Youth justice advocate and author Dujuan Hoosan became the youngest person ever to address the United Nations Human Rights Council at the age of 12. Dujuan’s plea to the  Council in 2019 has not yet been acted upon. “I want adults to stop cruelling 10 year old kids in jail. I want my future to be out on land with strong culture and language.” 

 

Placing children as young as 10 in the justice system is a human rights issue and it is an issue inextricably linked with homelessness.

Children and young people in the justice system are more likely to become homeless, and children and young people who experience homelessness are more likely to become involved with the justice system.  

  • Young people in detention, particularly young women, are at high risk of becoming homeless. 
  • At least 54% of people who exit prison report that they are likely to be homeless upon release. Criminalising children makes it more likely that they will be among those who experience homelessness as adults. 
  • Those same young people who experience greater risks of criminalisation are those also facing the greatest risks of homelessness – poverty, removal from care of families, disconnection from education, mental illness, disability and various forms of discrimination. The solutions to homelessness are the same solutions to youth social injustice and inequality. 
  • Many unsentenced young people experiencing homelessness are detained because they cannot provide a bail address. 
  • Homelessness impacts young people’s mental health, substance use and overall wellbeing – all factors that make a person more at risk of involvement in the justice system.

 

It’s up to us to reach out a hand and support our youngest kids to grow, learn and thrive. When we do this, our communities will be stronger and safer.

Action must be taken to ensure children are not trapped in a cycle between the justice system and homelessness.  

That is why Homelessness NSW, alongside over 100 organisations, have made a joint submission with #RaiseTheAgeNSW to the NSW Government Inquiry into community safety in regional and rural communities.  

#RaiseTheAgeNSW is calling on the NSW Government to:  

  • Resource and support Aboriginal Community-Controlled Organisations to work with First Nations children, families, and communities. 
  • Invest in services that prevent crime from the start.  
  • Fund targeted services and interventions that help kids learn to be accountable, and do better, when they go off track.  
  • Be guided by evidence and #RaiseTheAge from 10 to at least 14 without exception. 

Placing children as young as 10 in the justice system is a human rights issue and it is an issue inextricably linked with homelessness. Children and young people in the justice system are more likely to become homeless, and children and young people who experience homelessness are more likely to become involved with the justice system. We must do better.  

Click here to read the media release and here to join the Raise the Age campaign.  

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