The Northern Territory government is seeking to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years old to 12 years old.
The Labor government introduced the legislation to parliament on Thursday, saying authorities would now refer children under the age of 12 and their families to intensive parenting and behavioural change programs to break the cycle of offending.
The NT attorney general, Chansey Paech, said the reforms would balance community safety while ensuring young children in contact with the justice system were supported.
Paech said that incarcerating young children was contrary to best practices to reduce the rate of young offenders, and that punitive approaches would not reduce offending patterns.
“The evidence is clear, the earlier a child enters the justice system, the more likely they are to reoffend,” he said.
“Punitive measures are not a deterrent for 10- and 11-year-olds – in fact, it is more likely to increase behavioural problems and offending.”
Lawyers, human rights advocates and First Nations people have long been outspoken critics of the current age of criminal responsibility in Australia, with calls to raise the age across all jurisdictions.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s national children’s commissioner, Anne Hollonds, said on a recent visit to the territory she was told about a 10-year-old being jailed for stealing food.
“This is unspeakable, I just simply cannot understand how we do it in this country,” Hollonds said.
“Obviously, a 10-year-old stealing food is hungry and is in need of care and protection, but was locked in a cell on his own at Don Dale,” Hollands said.
Currently Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT have all committed to making steps towards raising the age of criminal responsibility or the age of criminal detention while other jurisdictions remain noncommittal.
Hollonds said while the legislation was moving in the right direction, the age of criminal responsibility should be 14, in line with human rights recommendations globally.
Change the Record’s Cheryl Axleby said while the reforms were welcomed, more needed to be done to reduce the rate of Indigenous young people ending up in the system.
“We pay kudos to the government, but we really could have had the opportunity to actually raise the age to 14 where typically they make up the high statistics of Aboriginal youth who are incarcerated in the Northern Territory,” Axleby said.
Axleby, a Narungga woman from South Australia, said it was important all jurisdictions look at making genuine reforms to reduce incarceration rates.
“Are they really doing it to reduce incarceration rates? Or are they just window dressing to demonstrate that they’ve made some change and that should be good enough?”.
Mick Gooda, the co-commissioner of the Northern Territory’s youth detention royal commission, said the legislation was a long time coming.
“Well, all I can say is, it’s about time,” the Gangulu man from Queensland said.
“I welcome it of course, but this is something that has been a very long time in the making, the NT government promised they’d do this back in November 2017.
“But this is a good change, they are the first jurisdiction to actually introduce the legislation, so I congratulate them.”
All Australian jurisdictions have committed to reducing the rate of Indigenous incarceration, including juvenile offenders, by 30% by 2031.
But according to the latest statistics, the NT was the only jurisdiction where the rate of Indigenous youth incarceration was not improving.
Between 2017 and 2022, children aged 10 or 11 represented 1% of children in custody, with 18 children being received in detention.
During the same period, 296 children aged 10 or 11 years old were “apprehended”, making up about 3% of all children in contact with the justice system, while those aged under 12 made up 11% of children entering police diversion programs.
The attorney general’s department said in the last financial year, 2.9% of offences were committed by those aged 10 and 11 years old.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility was agreed to by the NT government more than five years ago as part of a suite of recommendations stemming from the royal commission into the mistreatment of young detainees held in detention.