Raising the age

Sign outside Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre
Children as young as 10 are housed in Perth’s Banksia Hill Detention Centre. Photo: Charlie Mills.

A campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility in WA is gaining traction, largely due to a report recently published by Social Reinvestment WA. The campaign has raised thousands of dollars and collected thousands of signatories on a federal petition.

SRWA will be hosting an event on June 15, screening the documentary In My Blood It Runs, about an Indigenous child who comes into contact with the justice system. The screening will be followed by a panel on youth justice.

The report, endorsed by 74 organisations, showed a disproportionate representation of WA’s most vulnerable groups in Banksia Hill Youth Detention Centre.

WA’s age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old, which means that children as young as 10 are considered to be fully able to understand the law and the consequences of their actions, which can lead to them being jailed.

This has attracted widespread criticism from international organisations and Australian-based advocacy groups, as 10 years old is one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility among developed nations.

The global median age of criminal responsibility is 14 years old, the same age recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Some jurisdictions, such as Portugal, have an age of criminal responsibility as high as 16, while others, predominantly in the developing world, go as low as seven.

Earlier this year, 31 countries at the UN officially called for Australia to raise its age of criminal responsibility.

The organisation found in recent years, 72 per cent of incarcerated children are Indigenous Australians, despite Indigenous children only representing five per cent of the child population.

SRWA campaign coordinator Sophie Stewart said the overrepresentation represented systematic discrimination against Indigenous children in the justice system.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people more likely to be charged by police than receive a caution. They’re the overwhelming proportion of young people who come into contact with police, but they’re less likely to be cautioned than a non-Aboriginal child,” she said.

The report claims that 50 per cent of incarcerated children have also been involved in the child protection system, and 89 per cent suffer from a neuro-disability. A number of neuro-disabilities affects children in Banksia Hill. The most common is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, but others have developmental issues caused by brain injury.

Ms Stewart said children with cognitive impairments shouldn’t be incarcerated, as it could have significant negative impacts on development. To avoid this, cognitive impairments need to be recognised earlier.

“People who have FASD or other cognitive development disorders need to be given support early on. If you don’t have a support person in the classroom with you at school, if you haven’t been given a diagnosis by a paediatrician, it is incredibly difficult for people to recognise, identify the symptoms, and give you the support that you need,” she said.

SRWA says between 2018 and 2019, 143 children aged between 10 and 13 spent time in Banksia Hill while unsentenced.

Former president of the Children’s Court of WA Denis Reynolds said although Banksia Hill was called a ‘detention centre’, it was effectively a prison, and this environment negatively impacted the incarcerated children.

“They might be kept inside for more than 12 hours a day.”

Denis Reynolds, former President of the Children’s Court of Western Australia

“If you go there then it’s a cell, it’s a reasonably confined space … because there are some issues around the facility staffing issues, they might be kept inside for more than 12 hours a day.”

A spokesperson for the State Attorney-General said the government was working towards a solution to this issue, as a part of ongoing discussions at the Meetings of Attorneys-General.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said the department was already working on a number of strategies to divert children away from the justice system.

“The Olabud Doogethu Project in the Shire of Hall’s Creek — a project party funded by the WA Government — has seen a 58 per cent reduction in burglaries, 28 per cent reduction in stealing offences and 35 per cent reduction in stolen motor vehicles since its inception,” the spokesperson said.

Similar programs have seen a 42 per cent decrease in children coming from the Kimberley Region to Banksia Hill Detention centre in 2019-20.

However, Ms Stewart said: “We’re yet to see a commitment from the Attorney-General or from state ministers on this issue. We’re really hoping that they do the right thing and commit to changing these laws … What we also need is to implement the alternatives that work.”

2021 has been a significant year for this issue, as the ACT, Queensland and the NT are considering changing their age of criminal responsibility, and as reports have shown patterns of physical, emotional and sexual abuses in youth prisons.