The Northern Territory has become the first jurisdiction in Australia to legally declare 10-year-olds cannot be held criminally responsible for their actions, after a years-long #raisetheage campaign.
The NT government passed a bill to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 on Tuesday. The legislation also included a provision that children aged 12 or 13 could only be considered criminally responsible for an offence “if the child knows that [their] conduct is wrong”.
Attorney-General Chansey Paech said the changes would help break the cycle of youth re-offending in the NT.
“The revolving door to our detention centres stops here, the cycle of youth crime stops here,” he said in parliament.
“To make our community safer we must adopt smarter solutions that reduce crime … smart solutions that are proven to break the cycle of reoffending, prevent crime, and keep the community safe.”
NT Chief Minister (the equivalent of a Premier) Natasha Fyles said there was “unavoidable” evidence the younger a child was imprisoned, the more likely they were to re-offend.
“When you sentence a 10 or 11-year-old to prison, you’re not sentencing them to rehabilitation, to a life of better behaviour, to be that upstanding citizen,” she said.
“You are sentencing them to increased behavioural problems and potentially and most likely, the evidence shows us, a life of criminal activity.”
Imprisoning a child younger than 14 is considered illegal under international human rights law and has long been protested in Australia, in part because First Nations children are way overrepresented. Around 65 per cent of incarcerated children aged between 10 and 13 in Australia are First Nations, despite making up a tiny per cent of the population.
Aboriginal Elders and advocates have welcomed the new legislation but said it was just the first step. Independent MP and Yolngu man Yingiya Guyula said a lot more had to be done to change the “racist systems” and that the age should be raised to 14, not just 12.
“When our children are becoming more responsible and aware of their actions,  is an age we expect to see them hunting for their families and teaching younger children to hunt and protecting them from harm,” he said.
The National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds called it a welcome “first step only”, as per the ABC.
“On its own, raising the age to 12 will not have a big enough impact. It will depend on what else is done by way of those community-based prevention, early intervention and diversion programs [and] we need to start working on raising the age to 14,” she said.
Just days before the NT legislation passed, the UN committee against torture also called on Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility and immediately end the practice of solitary confinement for children. It said in a new report it was “seriously concerned” about Australia’s “very low” age of criminal responsibility and urged governments to “take all necessary measures” to reduce the incarceration rate of First Nations children.
Youth incarceration rates in the territory doubled in the second half of 2021 and a report in November 2021 calculated youth detention centres were at their fullest since the 2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory reported its findings. In Queensland, almost 31,000 children in the state’s youth detention centres were placed into solitary confinement in the past 12 months, 84 per cent of which were First Nations.
Tasmania will likely be the second state to raise the age after it committed to lifting it from 10 to 14 in June 2022. It’s anticipated the changes will be implemented by the end of 2024. No other states have drafted legislation to raise the age.