To keep young children out of adult prisons, Australia must urgently raise the age of criminal responsibility | Cheryl Axleby

It won’t fix all injustices but it’s a step towards getting children back to their families and communities where they belong

Children do not belong behind bars, they do not belong in maximum-security adult prisons, and they should not be punished for the failures of governments to provide the housing, education and healthcare to which we should all have access. Across Australia children as young as 10 can be put in handcuffs, thrown into police cars and locked in prison cells. As First Nations people, we know these experiences only too well, as we’ve been dealing with this kind of treatment since invasion. First Nations children make up at least 60% of those locked up in the 10 to 14 age group.

Over the last month we have seen headlines from Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania about the dire conditions in which these children are being held. Children as young as 14 were transferred to a maximum-security adult prison in WA, one of those children was hospitalised after self-harming. There were soaring rates of children harming themselves or attempting suicide in the NT’s Don Dale youth detention centre, and children in Tasmania were being locked in cells for most of the day due to staff shortages.

Now is the time for commonwealth, state and territory governments to take urgent action and raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 to get young children out from behind bars.

A nationwide crisis in the youth justice system

We know what happens to children when adults lock them away in concrete cells. They develop lifelong trauma, are less likely to finish school, and more likely to be forced into homelessness, end up abandoned and stuck in the harmful criminal “justice” system and face a greater risk of premature death. That’s why the Australian Medical Association, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association and the Royal College of Australian Physicians are unanimous in their calls for governments to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14. The UN has also called for all countries to raise the age to at least 14. And more than 200,000 Australians have signed our petition calling for the age to be raised.

This month Change the Record handed over those signatures to the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, and the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney. We called on them to show national leadership in raising the age. As children harm themselves and threaten to take their own lives in youth detention centres, there could be no greater urgency to act.


‘Cruel, inhuman and degrading’

We know many of my people who end up in the prison system do not belong there. First Nations people are often criminalised because of homelessness or poverty; our women misidentified as perpetrators who are actually victim-survivors of family violence. First Nations people are criminalised because of their disability or mental illness, or trapped in the criminal justice system from as young as 10 and given no pathway out. Raising the age won’t fix these injustices but it’s a step towards getting young children out of prison and back to their families and communities where they belong. It could also reduce some of the pressure in overcrowded and understaffed youth detention centres, which is allegedly why these children are being moved to adult prisons.

More than five years ago the country was shocked by images of an Aboriginal boy with a hood over his head, shackled to a chair in Don Dale. Now, the number of children being thrown behind bars in the NT has increased by 200% since May 2020, after the NT government introduced some of the most punitive bail laws in the country. Children and their lawyers tell us these appalling conditions have not improved. In just the last six months in NT youth prisons, there have reportedly been 37 instances of children self-harming and more than 50 attempted suicides.

In WA the inspector of custodial services called the conditions at Banksia Hill youth detention centre “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. Instead of fixing these conditions, the WA government transferred a group of 20 predominately First Nations children to a maximum-security adult prison, despite the community voicing concerns for their safety.

It has been almost three years since we launched the national Raise the Age campaign and called on commonwealth, state and territory governments to change the law to protect young children from these harms. So far the Australian Capital Territory has committed to keeping children under 14 out of the criminal justice system altogether, and Tasmania has announced it will keep children under 14 out of prison cells. For the first time we have a commonwealth government that has committed to working with state and territory governments to raise the age. But we need more action – and fast.

The unfolding crisis in WA, the NT and right around the country shows us the very real consequences of government inaction. This is a national disaster politicians have the power to turn around. It is my and many other families’ great fear that it is only a matter of time before a child’s life is lost.

Children require therapeutic responses to behavioural problems, rather than being dismissed as criminals, which drives more of my mob into further incarceration. The harm caused to children is very clear. More than 200,000 people in Australia have voiced their support. We need all Australian state, territory and commonwealth governments to act now before it is too late.

Cheryl Axleby for IndigenousX

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hundreds have died in US prisons from Covid-19. Will Australia act before it's too late? | Nerita Waight for IndigenousX
Covid-19 will almost certainly lead to more Aboriginal deaths in custody. The Victorian government has an urgent lesson to learn

Nerita Waight for IndigenousX

30, Jul, 2020 @8:25 AM

Article image
One Nation failure in Queensland's election doesn't mean race relations are better | Melinda Mann for IndigenousX
Covid may have distracted many voters from Pauline Hanson but there’s been no let up in the targeting of Indigenous people

Melinda Mann for IndigenousX

10, Nov, 2020 @7:01 AM

Article image
The abuse of children in Don Dale and other prisons is a national shame | Roxy Moore
Our children need to be strong in culture and have opportunities to thrive, not be locked up and bashed, says IndigenousX host Roxanne Moore

Roxanne Moore for IndigenousX

20, Nov, 2017 @12:08 AM

Article image
Raise the age to keep Aboriginal kids in community, not behind bars | Roxanne Moore for IndigenousX
Australian governments continue to imprison children as young as 10. We must build futures – not prisons

Roxanne Moore for IndigenousX

23, Jul, 2020 @4:57 AM

Article image
We saw how terribly children were treated in prisons and promised ‘never again’. Now there is just bitter disappointment | Sophie Trevitt
There is no question about what needs to be done, only a question of who is prepared to do it

Sophie Trevitt

23, Jul, 2019 @12:17 AM

Article image
I know our criminal justice system inside out, and it is being misused | Shahleena Musk
We need to rethink a system that is funnelling people into harmful prisons as the default response

Shahleena Musk for IndigenousX

27, Mar, 2018 @2:58 AM

Article image
Australia urged to follow UN advice and raise age of criminal responsibility by four years
Legal experts warn Australia falling behind world standards as UN recommends age be increased to 14

Calla Wahlquist

26, Sep, 2019 @12:00 AM

Article image
Amnesty urges Queensland to raise age of criminal responsibility to 14
Youth detention is ‘quicksand’ for the mostly Indigenous children imprisoned each year, human rights group says

Ben Smee

09, Aug, 2018 @3:02 AM

Article image
No young child should be waking up in jail on Christmas Day | Megan Mitchell
Australia has one of the youngest ages for criminal culpability in the world, which allows us to imprison 10-year-olds

Megan Mitchell

23, Dec, 2016 @1:10 AM

Article image
Australia has shown it’s not serious about empowering Indigenous people. Now our voices must be heard | Steve Gumerungi Hodder Watt for IndigenousX
We need a public review of the implementation of recommendations from the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody – by a majority First Nations committee

Steve Gumerungi Hodder Watt for IndigenousX

15, Apr, 2021 @5:34 AM