Question without Notice: Raising the Age
Dr RATNAM (Northern Metropolitan): My question is to the Attorney-General. Attorney, last week the Royal Australasian College of Physicians came out and joined the campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14. They joined over 30 other health and medical professional organisations, including the AMA, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and Orygen mental health service,
which have outlined the medical evidence for raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years of age. These health professionals join legal professionals, First Nations people and social justice advocates in the campaign to keep kids out of jail and the criminal justice system. In the government’s response to the Our Youth, Our Way report, the recommendation to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 is noted as being under review. Attorney, can you update this house on the
government’s current position on raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years?
Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Attorney-General): I thank Dr Ratnam for her question. Dr Ratnam, the government’s
current position is to keep as many children out of custodial settings as possible. Right now we have the lowest rates in a very long time, and it is something that we are proud of. But, like you, I think any child in custody is one too many.
In relation to raising the age I am much more interested in, as I said, kids not getting caught up in the justice system at all. Simply raising the age does not necessarily achieve that. The campaign to raise the age consistently suggests that there are a lot of kids in that cohort between ages 10, 11, 12 and 13 in custody, and that is just not a fact. Right now, as of today, there are more kids than I would like and more kids than there normally are in that cohort. I think last year you asked me a similar question. I gave you an answer that 40-something kids in the entire year in that age bracket were in custody. Right now there are three. They are all 13. None are Aboriginal. That is three too many, and we want to
make sure that we get the systems and the supports and the processes in place so that they are not in there.
An amendment in an act is something that people continually talk to me about. As I said, I am more interested in outcomes. However, there is a national process that I have been involved in at the Meeting of Attorneys-General where all jurisdictions unanimously across the country have agreed to progress individual proposals in relation to raising the age from zero to 12. But, as I have just indicated, that would not mean much here, because we have not had any kids under 12 in a very long time, even in custodial settings—very few under 14.
We are focused on programs, support and diversion. The last thing you want to do is raise the age to 14 and anybody that is under 14 simply gets put on hold until they are 14 and goes into a custody setting then. That is not what we want to achieve. I am much more interested in having a holistic program, whether it is about ensuring kids are engaged in school or working when they are coming into contact with the justice system, having a positive experience, particularly those kids that are in out-of-home care. I can confirm that almost 100 per cent of the kids in that cohort are from out-of home care. These are the kids where it is not just a matter of not sending them to jail and going to the parents and saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do a better job. We’ve got to be here’. These kids do not have family support. So making sure that the state can step in and fill that gap and make sure these kids are not ending up in prison at 13, 15 or 21 is the aim.
Dr RATNAM: Thank you, Attorney, for your response. We all support more efforts for prevention, support and diversion, but the fact is that kids under 14 are still being locked up in jails in Victoria and right across the country. The evidence just keeps getting stronger that the incarceration of children has serious long-term effects on their physical and mental health and wellbeing. Have you, Attorney, received advice on the damage caused to children, disproportionately First Nations children, from exposure to the criminal justice system from ages as young as 10, and if so, why have you failed to act on that evidence?
Ms SYMES: I think I have touched on these points, Dr Ratnam. Again, everyone keeps using the number 10. I have not come across a 10-year-old that has been in custody in my time as Attorney-General. That is not to say that these kids do not come into contact with the justice system and the police seek to have diversions. The Children’s Court are very focused on ensuring that children under 14 are not put into custody, not remanded and have the appropriate services and support to be able to go to.
Of course we do not want kids in jail. We know what the trajectory is. At 12, 14, if you are in custody, you are likely to be there at 16 and you are likely to be in and out for your entire life. Of course we understand the evidence, and that is why we are focused on diversion programs and support programs, and we have a whole-of-government approach to this.
I do not want to see these kids. They should not get to me. We have got free universal languages and programs in early, early childhood. This is where we need to get to these kids to support them all the way through so that they are not stats for me. I do not want to see them. We have a concerted effort cross multiple portfolios and departments that are focused on that endeavour.