Aboriginal groups have given conditional support to the Northern Territory government’s decision to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years old, but argue children are often still too young to be in detention.
The NT is the first jurisdiction in the country to raise the age of criminal responsibility. The move follows longstanding calls by Indigenous advocates, human rights experts and lawyers to raise the age to at least 14.
In a statement, the NT government’s attorney general and minister for justice, Chansey Paech, said detention was a last resort and he believed the change would limit children’s contact with detention.
“This legislation supports the rights of all Territorians to be safe by breaking the cycle of reoffending.
“We’re taking a smarter approach to youth justice so our communities can be safer.
“Our focus is on delivering proven solutions that will benefit our children, their families and the Territory as a whole.”
Guardian Australia understands that as of 28 November there were no NT children in detention between 10 and 13 years old.
Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT welcomed the reforms and said breaking the cycle of offending and ending the over-representation of Indigenous children in custody required complex solutions.
“The revolving door of repeated incarceration is not working and does not improve community safety,” its statement said. “We want to see responsive action, centred on addressing the risk factors for crime, because this leads to better outcomes for everyone.”
But the group, which brings together a coalition of Aboriginal peak bodies including justice and health groups, are continuing to push for the age of criminal responsibility to be increased to 14 years old.
“Now that this has been achieved, APO NT commits to working with the government to eventually raise age of criminal responsibility to 14 years of age,” said Dr John Paterson, a spokesperson with the group.
The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency said the reform was a welcome “momentous first step” and is calling for further investments into community programs for young people and families.
“The cost of imprisoning one child costs the taxpayers roughly $4,600 a day,” its acting CEO, Mark Munnich, said. “The government needs to redirect these funds to better resource community-led organisations and initiatives to provide holistic services to improve outcomes.”
The ACT has committed to raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14, but was yet to introduce legislation. It is also expected to introduce legislation to gradually raise the age – first to 12, then eventually to 14.
Western Australia was yet to formally introduce any legislation to raise the age but supported the development of a “national proposal” to increase the age to 12.
A statement from WA’s Department of Justice said that as of Monday there were no children under 12 and no sentenced children under 14 in detention. There was currently one 12-year-old and one 13-year-old on remand there.
Tasmania has committed to increasing the age of detention to 14 from 10, with the reforms set to be introduced by the end of 2024.
Other Australian jurisdictions remain non-committal to lifting the age of incarceration or detention.