Advocates have warned the ACT Government not to compromise on its commitment to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the Territory to 14.
The Labor-Greens parliamentary agreement committed to raising the age but did not specify what it should be raised to.
At the moment, the age of criminal responsibility in the ACT is 10. A 2011 human rights audit of the Bimberi Youth Justice Centre called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 12.
The Council of Attorneys-General deferred a decision to 2021 as it works to determine alternative ways of dealing with young offenders. NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said in July this year that he was yet to be convinced of raising the age, putting the onus on those wishing to raise it to make the case.
But the ACT Law Society warned the government about compromising to reach unanimity.
“The decision is an opportunity for the ACT to lead the nation on this important issue,” ACT Law Society President Elizabeth Carroll said.
“We would not want the government to waiver on its commitment to this goal or to decide on a lower minimum age than 14, even if the Council of Attorneys-General were subsequently to agree nationally on a lower threshold.
“We recognise that there is much work to be done to ensure systems are in place to support the legislative change and the ACT Law Society is ready to support the government, together with other peak community bodies that have been working together to advocate for this change.”
The new ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury, a strong proponent for raising the age to 14, dismissed any significance given to the absence of a specific age in the parliamentary agreement, saying it was to keep the document concise.
“Certainly, 14 is the recommended age when it comes to what the United Nations has set out and what the community groups have been advocating for,” he said.
“It is the recommended standard and so far I have heard no good arguments as to why it should not go to 14. My intent is to go to 14.”
The ACT Greens moved a motion in August that committed the new ACT Government to undertake policy work and consider legislation that would increase the age of criminal responsibility to 14.
Mr Rattenbury said the preference is to move on the issue as a nation but the ACT would move ahead of its counterparts if they did not act in a timely manner.
“If we cannot get movement at the national level, the ACT should move ahead; we cannot be dictated by the lowest common denominator dragging this process out.”
While Mr Rattenbury did not put an exact timeframe on the reforms, he said the government would move within the next 12 to 18 months.
The Canberra Liberals, who voted against the motion and called for more measured consideration, said they welcomed the discussion but would not take a stance on what age the law should be raised to.
“The Council of Attorneys-General has been looking at this matter for some time now and the final report is due next year. We should let this process complete rather than pre-empting these findings. It is important to get this right than to do it in a rushed way,” a Liberals spokesperson said.
“The Canberra Liberals will engage in any discussions on this issue in a productive and constructive manner.”
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said while he wanted there to be unanimity in the Assembly on the issue, he was prepared to push ahead without the Canberra Liberals.
CEO of the ACT Council of Social Services (ACTCOSS), Dr Emma Campbell, also warned against going below the age of 14.
“The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment 24 states that the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be at least 14 and in fact commends states with higher ages of 15 and 16,” she said.
“We also note that scientific and health research indicates the age should be at least 14, and the campaign is supported by the Australian Medical Association.
“As stated by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, at age 12 and 13 maturity, and the capacity for abstract reasoning, is still evolving. It is simply wrong to criminalise children whose brain development is ongoing.”
The reforms also need to ensure there are strong referral and disciplinary systems in place through the courts and the police to stop the recidivism of juvenile offenders before the ACT could move forward, Mr Rattenbury said.
“We need to make sure we have the right suite of options available to the judiciary to direct a young person down other paths, whether that is a range of diversionary programs, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health support … these are the sort of social drivers that sit behind a lot of juvenile offending.”
Across the country, there are around 600 children under the age of 14 in our prisons every year, and 10 of them are just 10-years-old, according to the previous President of the Law Council of Australia, Arthur Moses.
Mr Moses previously called the current age of criminal responsibility an “indictment on our nation”.