Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 February 2020


Criminal Responsibility

7:30 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on the urgent need to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Australia. Today I had the privilege of meeting with Maya Newell, director of the film In My Blood It Runs, and people from Dujuan Hoosan's community. Dujuan, who is the star of the film, is in Parliament House today for a screening of the documentary that features his experiences in Alice Springs in education and the justice system. Last September, Dujuan addressed the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva and made history as the youngest person to do so. One of the issues he spoke about was the importance of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to a minimum of 14 years.

By locking up children as young as 10 years old, our system is setting First Nations children up to fail. As a recent report by the Productivity Commission on government services highlighted, First Nations kids are being detained at a rate more than 20 times that of non-Indigenous Australian children. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years, at a minimum, is a key lever we can pull to decrease the over-representation of First Nations children in detention.

Below 14 years old—and, some would argue, even higher than that—children have not developed the requisite level of maturity to form the necessary intent for full criminal responsibility. Children at this age also lack the capacity to properly engage in the criminal justice system. The practices embedded in our juvenile justice system are contributing to the criminalisation of First Nations young people. Prison only perpetuates the cycle of violence, intergenerational trauma, poverty and crime.

But it's not only about prison; it's also about the culture within our justice system. I was alarmed by reports this month that police in New South Wales maintained a secretive blacklist disproportionately made up of First Nations children who they deem to be at risk of committing crimes. Many of these children, some of whom are as young as nine, have not been charged with any crimes. We know that our justice system is seriously sick when the police are secretly tracking First Nations kids. We must work with First Nations peoples to do better for First Nations young people in this country.

Fortunately, we know much of the pathway forward. The Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory gave us a road map of 227 recommendations, many of which can be replicated across other states and territories. It recommends increasing diversion and therapeutic approaches in youth justice, developing a new model of bail, providing place based services to families and ensuring detention is only ever used as a last resort for people up to the age of 17. I'll say 'last resort'.

In 2018-19, the federal government spent more than $916 million on youth justice, with most of the money going towards detention centres. We are spending millions and millions of dollars on a system that doesn't work and in fact causes great harm. Imagine if we diverted that money towards the rehabilitative approaches that are recommended in the 227 royal commission recommendations. Imagine if we spent that money on those sorts of approaches: youth diversionary programs, justice reinvestment programs and actually nurturing our First Nations young people.

I, like so many Australians, am absolutely sick of watching in horror as shocking human rights abuses against First Nations children are uncovered by the media, by inquiries and by royal commissions and their commissioners. First Nations children in this country deserve better. We should be increasing the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old. We should be investing in justice reinvestment projects, so that we're actually investing in the front end of the system to ensure that children do not have any interaction with the justice system; to make sure that we have placed based services; to make sure that we're taking a therapeutic approach and that detention is absolutely the very last resort, not the first as is the case now.