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  • Writer's pictureEmily Reason

Childs Play No More: 10-Year-Olds Facing Criminal Charges with Adult Consequences

In recent years, Australia has again been urged to reconsider its archaic laws regarding the age of criminal responsibility. 31 countries in the United Nations have called on the Australian government to attend to this human rights issue. Currently, the minimum age a juvenile can be held criminally responsible in the Australian justice system is just 10 years of age - 4 years below the international standard.

A 10-year-old child cannot legally drink, smoke cigarettes or even create social media accounts; however, in Australia they can be found guilty of crimes as serious as manslaughter and murder.

By holding a 10-year-old child criminally responsible, we promote the cycle of incarceration perpetuating for years, and even generations. 94% of children incarcerated between the ages of 10 and 12 will end up incarcerated again before the age of 18. Just as the act of suspending a child from school a child does little to solve the root cause of behavioural issues, uprooting a child from their community and home life to be locked away and labelled a criminal only serves to provide further obstacles to a prosperous and happy adulthood.

Kids in WA’s justice system are 9 times more likely to have been in the care of child protection. Many of these incarcerated children were born into a life of inequality and unfairness. They are some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens who deserve a chance at forging another path in life. Restorative justice practices could allow this possibility for children who might not yet see another path ahead of them.

In Western Australia around 17% of children are living below the poverty line, with this rate shooting up to 69% in areas such as East Pilbara. Many children growing up in these circumstances are already at risk of dropping out of school. By disrupting schooling with terms of imprisonment, they may never have the chance to break the cycle of poverty. Incarcerating children of such young ages, serves to interrupt crucial opportunities to turn their lives around and make something of themselves. How can we expect anything but symptoms of poverty, such as crime, to arise from these situations?

Another key issue in the changing of the age of responsibility is “penal populism”, where politicians utilise the importance of being “tough on crime” as a way of gaining support for their parties. This often places punitive justice at the forefront of politician’s platforms and policies. Pushing the stance of being “tough on crime” incites a visceral reaction from voters. We can relate to wanting to punish people who harm us and want to protect our families from harm. This kind of thinking also serves to solidify the power of the party who promises to punish these individuals. Very rarely do these kinds of policies result in anything other than overpopulated prisons.

Punitive justice has proven time and again that it is an ineffective tool in putting an end to criminal behaviour in our children; it is little more than a Band-Aid solution. Once these children are released back into the same, often worsened, situations post-incarceration, the rate of recidivism shows to be considerably high - especially where poverty and lack of access to education are a factor. Education is a valuable tool we have in freeing people from cycles of poverty and ensuing incarceration.

WA Children’s Court president Judge Hylton Quail spoke out about the treatment of children in these detention centres during sentencing of a 15-year-old boy in February of last year, stating “when you treat a damaged child like an animal, they will behave like one … If you want [to create] a monster, this is how you do it”.

Furthermore, when incarceration first occurs during the formative years of younger children, are we to expect anything less than the development of low self-worth and self-efficacy, or even a “criminal” mentality? Often, the personal experiences and circumstances of these young children are being overlooked in the current system; just as they would’ve been at school prior to imprisonment. With these current frameworks in place in our justice system, we are allowing the continued "unchilding" of children as young as 10 in the name of “justice”. We should be cultivating supportive environments and encouraging personal growth, furthered education, and healing amongst our children to allow them to achieve the best outcomes for the community, both the affected and the offenders.

If the government could commit to the bare minimum of changing the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, we could decrease the incarcerated juvenile population by around 6%. By raising the age, we are allowing a child to have the chance at having a childhood and giving them a chance to pursue education. We may also be showing children from lower socio-economic conditions that they too have the opportunity, to overcome their circumstances.

Restorative justice practices aimed at juvenile offenders, especially amongst the younger offenders, could result in a substantial shift in the way that we as society view criminal behaviour in children. Further to this, it may also alter the way in which we handle the cases where these young children engage in criminal activity. The solutions being handed down by the Australian government haven’t worked thus far, and it is time we redirect funding to resources and programs that support children in these situations. Ten-year-old children should be allowed the chance at a childhood; they belong in our schools and our playgrounds, not prison.

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