The ACT Government has started the groundwork to stop children as young as 10 being locked up for criminal offences, engaging a prominent child welfare researcher to identify the risks and extra services required when the ACT raises the age of criminal responsibility to 14.
Last August, ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury successfully moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14. Now he is Attorney-General in the new Labor-Greens government and the nation-leading reform is part of the Parliamentary Agreement.
But the move will require more than just an adjustment to the age in legislation, so the founding director of the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Child Protection Studies, Emeritus Professor Morag McArthur, has been contracted for six-months to consult with a wide range of stakeholders to identify service gaps, alternative ways of dealing with young offenders and cross-border issues if the ACT goes it alone.
Professor McArthur will look specifically at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and their families, as that group is disproportionately represented in the ACT’s criminal justice system.
She will also engage with those who are or have been involved with ACT Child and Youth Protection Services, and those exposed to or at risk of using alcohol and drugs, and with experience of or at risk of family violence.
The government wants her to focus on prevention, early intervention and diversion from the justice system, and justice reinvestment initiatives, where money is redirected from jails and detention centres to communities in need.
Professor McArthur is being asked to propose options and recommendations for service changes that incorporate restorative, therapeutic, family-based and culturally safe approaches.
Restorative justice focuses on offenders through reconciliation with victims, often through face-to-face meetings, and the community at large.
But the government also wants to know what other non-criminal statutory options may be required if these approaches fail to prevent or deal with a young person’s harmful behaviour.
It also wants to know what legal mechanisms there are or what may be required so there can be an immediate response to someone who is a threat to their own or others’ safety.
Professor McArthur will identify whether existing services need to be expanded, what new services may be considered, and estimate how much these will cost.
She has also been tasked to identify ways to reduce the risks of older people exploiting young people aged 10 to 13 to commit crimes on their behalf.
The government would prefer for all jurisdictions to agree on raising the age but is not prepared to wait, so it wants to know what it will require to deal with issues that may arise with other states, particularly NSW if it does not move at the same time.
It is concerned about what to do about young people from other jurisdictions committing crimes in the ACT, particularly children crossing the border from surrounding NSW areas.
The Council of Attorneys-General last year deferred a decision on the issue to 2021 as it works to determine alternative ways of dealing with young offenders. NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said last July that he was yet to be convinced of raising the age.
Professor McArthur is being paid $108,000 for the work, and her final report is due on 2 August, but this may be extended by three months if required.