Human rights organisations have called on Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility by at least four years following a recommendation from the United Nations.
It comes amid criticism that Australia has failed to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years old despite repeated international and domestic criticism and a royal commission recommendation.
At a dialogue in Geneva this month, the committee on the rights of the child chastised Australia for failing to address issues raised in its last review in 2012, including raising the age of criminal responsibility and the over-representation of Indigenous children in custody.
The UN will hand down Australia’s report card on implementing the provisions of the convention on the rights of the child within weeks.
The committee also released a comment on children’s rights in the child justice system, its first general comment on juvenile justice in the convention since 2007, recommending that the age of criminal responsibility for all nations be increased to 14 and the minimum age at which a child could be placed in detention be raised to 16.
The previous recommended age was 12 years, but 14 is the average age of jurisdictions worldwide. The royal commission into the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory in 2017 recommended the age be raised to 12 in Australia.
The committee said it had increased its recommended age to reflect current research in child development and neuroscience, which says that abstract reasoning skills are not fully developed in children aged 12 and 13.
“State parties are encouraged to take note of recent scientific findings, and to increase their minimum age accordingly, to at least 14 years of age,” the committee said.
It also recommended that “no child be deprived of liberty, unless there are genuine public safety or public health concerns” and that countries increase the minimum age of detention to 16.
Children with developmental delays “should not be in the child justice system at all, even if they have reached the minimum age of criminal responsibility.”
A 2018 study found that 89% of children in detention in Western Australia had a severe cognitive impairment and 36% had foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
On an average night in 2018, 59% of children in youth detention in Australia were Indigenous, meaning they were detained at 26 times the rate of their non-Indigenous peers. Sixty per cent of the youths in detention had not been sentenced.
In May, every child in detention in the NT was Indigenous.
“We are falling further and further behind world standards,” Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services said. “It’s such a simple reform, yet it would make a world of difference.”
Axleby and the Human Rights Law Centre said the reform should lead the agenda at the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (Coag).
WA senator Patrick Dodson said he was awaiting the outcome of a Coag working group on raising the age. He said he personally considered that the current age of 10 was “far too low and has a devastating impact on First Nations communities and families”.
The Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, said the working group was still considering the issue and the Morrison government was working to improve outcomes for vulnerable youths through “early intervention programs”.