Magistrate says it is ‘fundamentally wrong’ to jail young children

Albert McKnight 4 August 2021 12
Magistrate Robert Cook

Magistrate Robert Cook speaking at the Menslink’s Midweeker on Wednesday. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The criminal justice system can be an overwhelming experience for anyone. But for children hauled before Canberra’s courts, it can be terrifying.

However, for the last three years, Magistrate Robert Cook has looked past the line of lawyers, prosecutors or family members filling the courtroom and attempted to connect with the youths charged in the ACT Children’s Court.

He reaches out and tries to put them at ease. He asks them how they are going, or what they’ve been up to.

“One of the things I try to make sure I say to young people when they come before the court is I’m not here to sentence them based on who they are, what they believe in or where they come from,” he said.

“I’m only here to sentence them on a particular event which occurred at a particular time on a particular day that they were involved in, and that’s it.”


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Magistrate Cook believes it is “fundamentally wrong” that children are brought into the criminal justice system at 11, 12 or 13 years of age, with so many appearing before him having faced a “terrible existence”.

“And what society is then asking me to do is to put them in jail, and I cannot understand that,” he said.

“It is completely wrong. And here we sit as a modern democracy, as a modern community, and yet we want to lock up children.”

Magistrate Cook knows only too well about the tragic upbringing many young offenders have had to endure to survive as his own early years were marred by violence.

Magistrate Robert Cook

Magistrate Robert Cook speaks at the Menslink Midweeker on Wednesday. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

On Wednesday (28 July), he publicly told his story for the first time to a packed crowd in Griffith as part of Menslink’s Midweekers, a series of events where speakers talk about defining moments of their lives.

He remembered one Sunday morning years ago when he was a Grade 3 student. He had just come out for breakfast with his mother and twin sister, but he saw a stranger sitting at the table as he sat down to eat.

His mother asked if he wanted toast, and he replied, “yes”. But within “milliseconds”, he said this stranger punched him so hard in the chest he flew out of his chair into a wall.

“I was then picked up and shaken and reminded that I should say please,” he said.

For about the next 12 years, he, his mother and his sister were exposed to domestic violence.

“I would be punched regularly, probably because I looked like a baby giraffe,” the tall magistrate told the crowd.


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He and his sister were taken into care several times before returning to their mother.

They moved across the country and went through so many different schools he was unable to build any friendships.

“The only person that my sister and I anchored to was each other, and we still talk today, almost every day,” he said.

“And there’s Mum, of course, and she was always prominent in our lives until she passed away.”

After school he joined the Air Force, went on his first tour of the Middle East in 1978, met his wife, and had three children.


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While trying to decide what he wanted next from life, he thought back to an Australian television show he watched as a teenager called Consider Your Verdict.

The impression that courtroom drama series had on him spurred him into action. He worked in private practice, was admitted to the ACT Bar in 2010, joined the Magistrates Court bench in 2013 and has spent the last three years in the Children’s Court where his subjects have left a lasting impact on him.

“[These are] young people who are in the most adverse of circumstances. I had it easy compared to some of these kids,” he said.

Menslink Midweekers are free events held every four weeks at Gryphons Caffe Bar on a Wednesday evening. They’re open to every man, woman and young person interested in discussing issues affecting young guys in our community. The next Widweeker will be held on 25 August with guest speaker Ben Farrinazzo.


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12 Responses to Magistrate says it is ‘fundamentally wrong’ to jail young children
Spiral Spiral 5:40 am 20 Aug 21

So what would Magistrate Cook suggest doing with the 13 year old who has been charged with the attempted murder of Toutai Kefu in Brisbane (assuming of course they are found guilty)?

Does a 13 year old attempted murderer deserve jail?

Eddie Xia Eddie Xia 11:56 pm 05 Aug 21

100% magistrate!

Danielle Heffernan Danielle Heffernan 5:19 pm 04 Aug 21

Very well said Magistrate Cook.

The 'problematic kids' are our society and they deserve to be protected.

Penny Hemsworth Penny Hemsworth 4:43 pm 04 Aug 21

So where are the parents of 11 year olds, while they are committing a crime??? Maybe the Judge is right.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 10:23 am 03 Aug 21

Judge John Deed would agree.

Sylvia Doherty Sylvia Doherty 10:23 am 03 Aug 21

Amy MacMillen this is the talk that we went to that I was telling you about.

Spiral Spiral 5:38 am 03 Aug 21

His job is to apply the law as written.
If he wants to change it, he should become a politician.

Around Australia we have seen magistrates complain about mandatory sentencing laws because they have failed to understand that if we can’t trust them to apply the law, we will decide to force them to apply the law.

Though of course the ACT government is also moving in generally the same direction regardless of what the people want.

I agree with Mr Cook that we don’t want to put young children in jail, but the highest priority must always be to protect society. If and when the government implements a better solution, then change.

But do not give young repeat offenders a free pass. That will not help anyone.

Any change to how we handle young offenders, especially the problematic repeat ones, must be watched and measured to ensure that it does really lead to a better outcome for society.

    GrumpyMark GrumpyMark 8:43 am 03 Aug 21

    Absolutely agree, Spiral. While some kids have had a raw deal, a lot know exactly how to “game the system”. A former police officer friend said that when they would arrest juveniles for offences, many would laugh and say something like “I’ll go to juvie and cry in front of some softie magistrate and get off”.

    Heavs Heavs 10:19 am 03 Aug 21

    Your exact same argument works for ‘all judges are soft on crime’. They are just applying the laws of the day (including all the areas they have to consider when sentencing someone).

Sylvia Doherty Sylvia Doherty 11:30 pm 02 Aug 21

Amy MacMillen this is the talk that we went to that I was telling you about.

Anne Brechin Anne Brechin 5:00 pm 02 Aug 21

I’m not convinced society as a whole wants to jail 11 year olds.

Coralee Rauber Coralee Rauber 4:37 pm 02 Aug 21

At age 11 the kids know better. The age should stay at 10 to be sentenced

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