NT must lead the way in ending criminalisation of 10 year old kids

The Gunner Government must be the first in Australia to end the injustice of children as young as 10 being held back in life by a criminal record, said Amnesty International in Darwin today.

The Northern Territory Government, like all in Australia, is harming children at a crucial time in their development, by criminalising them at the young ages of 10 to 13. This is far younger than the rest of the world, where the median minimum age children are locked up is 14.

Every single child in detention in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Amnesty today stood alongside Territory health and legal experts Olga Havnen, representative of Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT, and Matthew Littlejohn, barrister from William Forster Chambers, outside Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, to release a summary paper on the issue.

The experts called on Attorney-General Natasha Fyles and Minister for Territory Families Dale Wakefield to urgently address the ongoing crisis in the NT youth justice system by raising the minimum age the NT can give a child a criminal record to 14. This would be in line with the latest medical research and as recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Too young for Facebook is too young for prison

“If a 12 year old child isn’t old enough to have a Facebook account, they aren’t old enough to be shackled with a criminal record,” said Rodney Dillon, Indigenous Rights Adviser at Amnesty International Australia.

Olga Havnen said, “Criminalising 10-13 year old children flies in the face of the latest brain science on when the brain matures. It also ignores the role of trauma in regulating emotion, behaviour and impulsivity. A high proportion of children who come into contact with justice system have experienced trauma, which is often an underlying cause of offending behaviour.”

Matthew Littlejohn said, “Young people are particularly vulnerable when exposed to the criminal justice system. They require support, education, and diversion, not incarceration. It has been clear for a long time that locking up young kids does enormous damage, to the children, their families, and their communities. Just because they may have broken the law does not mean they deserve to be broken by the system. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 not only brings us into line with international standards, it reinforces our obligation to protect and rehabilitate young people at their most vulnerable.”

Children will be damaged until the age is raised

The Northern Territory has committed to raising the minimum criminal age, but, despite new evidence from human rights, health, legal and community experts, has only committed to raising it to 12.

The Territory Government’s expected deadline to raise the age – sometime after 2021 – is also so far in the future that hundreds of Territory children will be damaged before that time.

The children locked up in that time are more likely to become adult offenders, with children locked up before age 14 three times as likely to become chronic adult offenders than children locked up after 14. Imprisoning 10-14 year old children also makes them less likely to complete high school, complete further education and training, and gain employment.

Indigenous-led programs

Today’s summary paper echoes the findings of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that the Government would better prevent offending by keeping children away from the justice system, and by expanding ‘place-based’ programs that support children and families to overcome problems in their young lives.

One of the local programs offering such an approach in Darwin is Balunu, which takes young people on intensive cultural camps with Elders and Aboriginal social workers, and provides support to the kids and families to help with any issues they’re facing.

Rodney Dillon said, “We welcomed Friday’s refreshed strategic plan from Territory Families, particularly its commitment to a youth diversion framework that includes wilderness camps. It must now put words into action by funding Indigenous-led programs and raising the age of criminality to 14 before the year’s end.”