Raising the age: why it needs to be more than detention

Tasmania has recently been in the news for raising the age – not of criminal responsibility, but of detention.

Amnesty welcomes this significant step in a smarter approach to justice. Putting children in prisons causes irreparable harm, governments know this, but continue to allow children to be subject to this treatment. The Tasmanian government recognising that kids don’t belong in prison is a major step forward; but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The distinction may seem subtle, but it is significant. Keeping kids out of detention under the age of 14 indeed keeping kids out of prison altogether, is preferable to detaining them. But raising the age of detention still doesn’t keep them out of the criminal justice system.

We know that kids who interact with the criminal justice system are three times more likely to reoffend.

That’s not good for the kids, and it’s not good for crime rates.

So why do we keep doing it? That really is the central question.

The only conclusion I can draw is that Australian lawmakers view the harm caused to kids (disproportionately First Nations kids) is more palatable to the electorate than a nuanced approach which tackles the underlying causes.

The good news for those State and Territory politicians is that the hard work has already been done. Time and time again across the country, Aboriginal-led diversion programs have proved themselves successful in keeping kids out of the criminal justice system. A lot more successful than detention.

The thing that’s missing? Funding. It’s pretty galling to see State governments committing billions of dollars to policing when a fraction of the money could be spent on diversion programs that are proven to keep kids out of prison and ergo, reduce youth crime.

Raising the age of detention is a very small step in what should be the evidence-based, socially and economically responsible reform to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

The ACT is already well progressed in its work on this and other jurisdictions have indicated they are open to making the change. The new Federal Government has also committed to leadership on the issue.

But while these minor steps along the way are welcome, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Australia is a shameful outlier in locking up kids as young as 10, most Australians want it to stop to bring Australia in line with the bare minimum global standards on children’s rights.

Raise the Age campaign update

Since 2018, Amnesty has campaigned to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Australia to at least 14 years old.

In August 2022, alongside our coalition partners in Change the Record, Amnesty handed over close to 210,000 signatures from everyday Australians to Attorney General Mark Dreyfus and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, calling on the Federal Government to line up with the rest of the human rights-respecting world – as mandated under the Children’s Convention – and raise the age to 14 now.

Join our call.

As part of Amnesty’s 2025 Vision, we are committed to working with First Nations communities, partners and allies to secure justice and end the overrepresentation of young people in prisons within a generation. Learn more about our Indigenous Rights campaign.

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AUSTRALIA: It’s time to fund justice that works