Australia’s Indigenous Affairs Minister says she is committed to raising the age of criminal responsibility across the country.
Her call to action comes as the Don Dale youth detention center in the Northern Territory was the site of four self-harm incidents in the space of a weekend – including one suicide attempt.
It prompted renewed calls for the Northern Territory and all Australian states to follow the lead of the ACT – and, as recently as last week, Tasmania – to raise the age of criminality from 10 to 14.
While the NT Attorney-General last week confirmed he would “make sure” the age would be raised during this term of government, many are concerned the period will only be raised to 12, rather than 14, as recommended by the United Nations and medical and legal experts.
While the age of criminal responsibility is ultimately a matter for individual states and territories, Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney says she will ensure it is high on their agenda.
“Ten is too young, and we’ll be working with the states and territories to address it,” she told NCA NewsWire.
Camera IconThere’s been multiple self-harm incidents inside Don Dale in the past week. Photo: Amanda Parkinson Credit: News Corp Australia
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus echoed Ms. Burney’s sentiment, saying it was an issue he would raise at a future Meeting of Attorneys-General.
“Criminal law is primarily a matter for the states, although Labor believes the Commonwealth can take a leadership role to achieve reform,” a spokesperson for Mr. Dreyfus told NCA NewsWire.
“It’s a sad fact that a significant number of children in detention are Indigenous children, and there is a need to invest in programs to tackle the unacceptably high incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians.”
Any attempt the federal government makes to bring states in line with the United Nations guideline for the age of criminality will be supported by the Greens, with senator Lidia Thorpe saying she felt more hopeful working with Labor than she ever did with the coalition.
“I’m hopeful we’re going to get a lot done,” she told NCA NewsWire.
“Absolutely (I’ll be pushing) to raise the age to the international standard of 14 … but the other thing I’ll be talking to (Ms. Burney) about and going is the Bringing Them Home Report.
“Many of our kids are still part of the same cycle of intergenerational trauma. I believe implementing those recommendations will also help those kids in these torturous prison systems.”
RISING RATES OF HARM
The latest push to raise the age comes after four children were taken to the Royal Darwin Hospital in three days from Don Dale due to “intensely distressing” conditions.
One child was a 16-year-old boy believed to have stabbed himself in a suicide attempt.
The decommissioned adult prison turned youth detention center on Darwin’s outskirts was ordered to be closed by February 2018 following the damning Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, but has continued to operate.
At least 95 percent of the youths at the center are Indigenous.
DON DALE: Number of children and self-harming risks
The territory’s youth incarceration rates are up 200 percent from two years ago, with activists saying the situation has been exacerbated by the “punitive” change to bail laws, as well as the age of criminality still at 10.
There are also reports of staffing issues – claims denied by the government – leading to allegations children are being left isolated in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.
It’s “little wonder” activists say the facility has, as a result, witnessed a 150 percent spike in self-harm incidents, with many concerned it’s “only a matter of time” before there is a death.
The 16-year-old boy is understood to have been left alone in a cell on Friday before he harmed himself. He was taken to hospital, but after being discharged, was returned to Don Dale and placed back in isolation.
He was returned to the hospital on Sunday.
An NT Families spokesperson said the teenager was now back at Don Dale receiving support.
A ‘CLEAR CALL TO ACTION
Over the second half of 2021, Don Dale reported 54 episodes of self-harm or suicide compared with just eight in the same period in 2020 – mirroring a skyrocketing number of children remanded or sentenced to the facility.
Change the Record chief executive Sophie Trivett said there was no “clearer call to action” in the wake of the weekend’s incidents.
“Multiple children under the government’s care are trying to harm themselves because they are suffering to such a great extent in a government institution,” she told NCA NewsWire.
“This is not an anomaly; it’s a regular occurrence that children will self-harm or attempt to kill themselves because of the intense distress that they are experiencing in these environments.
“Don Dale has been in a crisis since I worked as a youth justice lawyer in the NT during the royal commission … which was clear that the building is not fit-for-purpose.”
Camera IconActivists are calling on Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney to change the age of criminality. NCA NewsWire/Bianca De Marchi Credit: News Corp Australia
Ms. Trivett said the new federal Labor government had a role in pushing state and territory governments to raise the age of criminality from 10 to 14.
“The new Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney has (now) said on the record that criminalizing children as young as 10 is far too young,” Ms. Trivett said.
“What we haven’t seen though is the Labor government take that a step further and say ‘we are urging our state and territory governments to … raise the age’.”
Ms. Trivett said it would not be enough for states and territories to raise the age to 12, saying 14 was medically and psychologically proven to be the absolute youngest age a child should be subjected to the criminal legal system.
Camera IconCalls for Don Dale’s closure continue. (A) Amanda Parkinson Credit: News Corp Australia
Over the past two years, there has been a 200 percent increase in the number of children entering detention in the NT, a direct correlation to the government’s new bail laws.
The laws allow less serious bail breaches – such as failure to charge an electronic monitoring device – to be treated as serious, resulting in children being sent back to detention.
There were 64 children in Territory prisons in the final six months of 2020. That figure jumped to 199 at the end of 2021.
As of Thursday, the NT government said there were 35 young people at Don Dale.
Amnesty International’s Australian Indigenous rights campaigner, Maggie Munn, said Don Dale was “dangerous” and kids “don’t belong in prison at all”.
“When are we going to accept that locking kids up doesn’t work?” they said.
“It doesn’t reduce crime, and it ruins children’s lives. There are better solutions that work, the NT Police’s data shows this.
“Instead of kids being harmed in Don Dale, they need to be sent to programs that help them re-engage with school or employment, address underlying trauma and health issues, and set them up to live a healthy, happy life.”
DON DALE: Number of unique kids in detention NT
Territory Families Minister Kate Worden said the government continued to make “significant investment” in youth justice programs but did not respond to specific questions about when Don Dale would close.
“We have reformed our youth detention system, and it is not what it was in 2016,” Ms. Worden said.
“We are building a new purpose-built facility in Darwin and refurbishing our Alice Springs facility. We have ensured that the new facility will strike a balance between ensuring it is secure, safe, robust, and durable while meeting the therapeutic and rehabilitative needs of young people sentenced to detention or on remand.”