Next week, Australia’s state and federal attorneys-general will meet to discuss raising of the age of criminality in Australia. Currently it is set at the age of ten. This means ten-year-old Australian children can be arrested by police, remanded in custody, convicted by the courts and imprisoned. Just like adults.
Of all the ten to 13-year-old kids currently sitting in detention, more than 70% are First Nations people. In most of the world the minimum age of criminal responsibility is set at 14.
At a time when our justice system is rife with racism and abuse, we are incarcerating ten-year olds. Not only should it have never come to this, the fact we haven’t corrected what is surely an archaic oversight, by immediately overturning the age to at least 14, is a criminal act.
Juvenile criminal behaviour overwhelming stems from trauma. A child who was once the victim is overridden by unprocessed pain, anger, insecurity, abandonment and self-esteem issues that she or he eventually becomes the perpetrator.
One of the most well-known recent examples of this phenomena was that of First Nations kid, Dylan Voller. I was his youth worker from 2008 to mid-2010 in Alice Springs when Dylan – an indigenous kid – was 10-12 years old. He was a tough kid, and an even tougher kid to handle. He had problems. An abusive, chaotic and transient upbringing, he’d been diagnosed at an early age with ADHD and other behavioural problems. But he also loved animals, his family, footy, cars and music.
Instead of locking kids like Dylan up what if we identify the trauma and then through conscious connectedness, heal the trauma with love and purpose? After all, these are just children. And we are adults who, in theory, have matured to a point we can control our emotions and show compassion in the face of behaviour that clearly is the result of faulty programming and poor parenting.
I am the sole carer of my ten-year-old son. I see what happens when I scold him; I also see what happens when I come at him with love, understanding and patience. Children respond positively to love and warmth, far more than they do being berated and punished. This is not rocket science. Every halfway conscious parent knows this. So how haven’t the top law makers in the country figured this out?
Children’s neural pathways are not set until their teens so at ten we can mould and shape these kids. Is a punitive prison system the best place to do this? From my experience working with troubled kids in and out of juvenile detention, I learned that these child prisons are little more than primary school for criminals. They compound the dysfunction in children and it is little surprise to see the incarceration rates of First Nation children mirrored by their adult counterparts with First Nation adults making up 27% of the prison population despite accounting for just 2% of Australia’s general population.
The Australian government itself admits, “over-representation is both a persistent and growing problem.”
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates increased 41% between 2006 and 2016, and the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous imprisonment rates over that decade widened,” The Australian Law Reform Commission writes.
These are cartoonishly bad numbers. And yet still our government ummms and ahhhs over whether we should be locking ten year old, disproportionately black kids, up.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman told the ABC it was unlikely any reforms would be made until the final report was presented to the council in 2021.
“When you have nine jurisdictions at CAG you could have nine different responses, so I don’t know whether there will be a consensus, but a decision will be made one way or other,” he said.
He also said he wasn’t convinced that reforms were needed.
“There is an in-principle issue about whether you raise the age of criminal responsibility at all, but if you do, you need to know what is the alternative regime.
“I think it is ambitious to raise the age to 14 without any carve-outs. We remain to be convinced, but the reason further work is being done is so if people want to convince us they can,” he told the ABC.
As the world convulses at the sight of police brutality and the insane rates of incarceration of black people in America, the incarceration of First Nation children remains Australia’s dirty little secret.
The alternatives are many and obvious. What if we directed funds to healing children and their psychological wounds rather than throwing them to the dogs and the screws? As it stands, ten year olds in this country are not allowed to join Facebook or Instagram but they can be sent to prison.
In much the same way, if we really thought ten-year-olds were responsible for their own actions, wouldn’t that be the minimum age for consensual sex, for leaving school, getting married, getting a job, a credit card, signing a contract and voting?
We shelter, support and guide young children and adolescents into adulthood in all aspects of life. Except for when they make a mistake and end up in jail or detention. And when they make a mistake, let’s not forget it’s less them making the mistake and more their parents. And beyond that a system that does not acknowledge or account for the legacy of trauma left behind by past misdeeds, not to mention ongoing ones. Intergenerational trauma, epigenetics, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – these are scientifically proven phenomena that the best barristers in the country seem not to know exist.
We are not simply incarcerating these children. We are committing them to a life of systemised institutionalism. Comprehensive evidence shows the earlier a child enters the justice system, the greater the likelihood of lifelong interaction with the justice system.
The issue of youth incarceration was recently highlighted in a documentary on the ABC called, In My Blood It Runs. The documentary follows 10-year-old Dujuan Hoosan, an Arrernte and Garrwa boy who was almost sent to prison and goes on to make a speech to the United Nations about youth incarceration.
Dujuan’s experience highlighted one major thing: when kids have time put into them and are loved, and empowered and educated and have their traumas healed, change for the good happens, and it lasts.
Why don’t we heal the children instead of punishing them? – Craig Braithwaite and Jed Smith