An independent review into models that could be adopted to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the Territory has been released by the ACT Government (11 October).
The review was conducted as part of the ACT’s push to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 by the end of 2022, putting it in line with the United Nations threshold in an Australia-wide first.
The Review of the service system and implementation requirements for raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility in the Australian Capital Territory was led by Emeritus Professor Morag McArthur, in conjunction with Aboriginal consultancy group Curijo and ANU’s Dr Aino Suomi.
They set out to better understand the needs of the children who would be impacted by raising the age of criminal responsibility, formulate a plan for the service requirements and pathways for children with complex needs, identify crucial service gaps in the ACT system, and establish possible alternative models to address the needs of children.
The review stressed the importance of improving the after-hours services and crisis accommodation for this age group, recommending a “wraparound” model as the best path forward. The wraparound model would engage with the children, their family’s and professional support services to create a flexible system of support specific to the unique circumstances of every child.
Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the report confirmed his stance that the ACT can provide better alternatives than imprisonment for their young people, but also that there are a number of obstacles that will need to be overcome before the age can be raised.
“Right across Australia, children as young as 10 can be arrested by police, brought before the courts on criminal charges and receive custodial sentences,” Attorney-General Rattenbury said.
“In committing to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility, we also recognise the reality that some children and young people can and do, cause harm to themselves or others. The ACT Government must have effective systems in place to support these children and young people and their families and safeguard the community when the age is raised.
“The review clearly shows the work and reforms we need to consider in the coming months and years and highlights the importance of early, coordinated and sustained help for children and their families.
“This review doesn’t deter us from the challenge ahead, though. In fact, now we know how to make it happen. We know the importance of this reform and we remain committed to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility,” he said.
While releasing the review, Mr Rattenbury conceded that the findings suggest there is more work to do in this field than initially thought.
Minister for Children, Youth and Families Rachel Stephen-Smith described the review as an important step in the process of reform and said that filling the gaps in the system identified in the report will be essential as they move forward.
“It tells us that there are some gaps in our service system, but it also tells us that there are some gateways that are missing,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
“Sometimes young people have to come into contact with the justice system in order to get access to the services and support for them and their family.”
Minister for Justice Health and Assistant Minister for Families and Community Services Emma Davidson said a community-based approach was essential in reforming the behaviour of young people and carrying out the raising of the age of criminal responsibility in the ACT.
“A robust and integrated support system for children and young people will improve social and justice outcomes across the community. It will be transformational for future generations where all young people can live healthier, safer and happier.”
“It truly takes a community to raise a child. I look forward to working with the youth, mental health and disability sectors to continue delivering programs, such as the Functional Family Therapy pilot, that meet the needs of young people at risk, so they have more opportunities in life for growth, development and support,” she said.
Indigenous-led justice reform group Change the Record has been outspoken on the issue, most notably through their #raisetheage online campaign. Co-chair Cheryl Axleby said she was pleased with the steps being taken by the ACT Government and called on other state and territory governments to follow suit.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids bear the brunt of bad policies and bad policing. Our kids suffer when governments build new prisons instead of investing in adequate housing, supports in schools and family services. This ACT report shows how governments can do things differently by supporting our kids to thrive instead of locking them away.
“We call on every state and territory government to look at the work the ACT has already done to raise the age, and take urgent action to raise the age.”
“If governments are serious about closing the gap, and giving every child the opportunity to grow, thrive and succeed, then they need to start by raising the age and setting our kids free,” said Ms Axelby.
The review is publicly accessible on the Justice ACT website.