A landmark, new standard has been set in international human rights guidelines with the expert UN Child Rights Committee recommending laws be changed to ensure that children under the age of 16 years "may not legally be deprived of their liberty". The child rights’ experts also stated that 14 was the minimum age at which children should be held legally responsible – previously the committee put that age at 12.
Currently across Australia, children as young as 10 can be arrested, charged with an offence, hauled before a court, locked away in prison and deprived of their liberty and ultimately their wellbeing. The Australian Government, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, should adhere to the recommendations of UN experts, but in an earlier submission to the UN, the Australian Government fought against this new standard.
Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Legal Services said our outdated laws were mainly harming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids.
“We are falling further and further behind world standards. If the Prime Minister is serious about tackling the rates at which Aboriginal kids are being forced into the criminal legal system, then this should be the number one agenda item at the next COAG meeting. It’s such a simple reform, yet it would make a world of difference,” said Axleby.
Shahleena Musk, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that this updated UN standard shows that when it comes to children’s rights, Australian governments are hopelessly out of step with best practice and international law.
“As a society we should be doing all that we can to protect, support and help our children. That’s what is at the heart of this new international standard. Ten year old kids belong in schools and playgrounds, not in prisons, but Australia’s archaic laws are ripping children from their families, community and culture and throwing them into concrete cells. Decent politicians, would raise the age of criminal responsibility,” said Musk.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child updated its general comment on children’s rights in the child justice system to reflect developments around child rights, including scientific knowledge about child and adolescent brain development and the negative consequences prison has on children’s wellbeing.
Dr Mick Creati, Paediatrician and Adolescent Physician and Senior Fellow with the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said that the medical evidence is clear – developmentally, children are very different to adults.
“Children under 14 years have relatively immature brain development when it comes to decision-making, organisation, impulse control and planning for their future. We shouldn’t criminalise actions that may be developmentally normal for children of this age and they should not be incarcerated as a consequence,” said Dr Creati.
“Raising the age is common sense, but is also backed up by the science – kids of this age just don’t have the emotional or mental maturity, they are not at a stage of development to fully grasp the consequences of their actions and so it’s up to us adults to help kids to learn and develop responsibly rather than dumping kids into the quicksand of the criminal legal system. We should do better,” said Musk.
Michelle Bennett, Communications Director, Human Rights Law Centre: 0419 100 519