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Calls continue for raising Queensland’s age of criminal responsibility

Calls to change Queensland’s minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) laws from 10 to 14-years-old continue to grow ahead of a public parliamentary committee hearing on Monday (14 Feb).

Queensland Community and Support Services Committee (Committee) has invited 20 stakeholders – including Queensland Law Society – to make oral submissions on proposed changes to the ‘Criminal Law (Raising the Age of Responsibility) Amendment Bill 2021’ (Bill).

The Committee has already received 73 written submissions on the proposed Bill – with the vast majority advocating the minimum age of criminal responsibility be raised to “at least 14-years-of-age.”

Some of the submissions also address the particularly serious impact the current youth justice system is already having on disadvantaged and vulnerable children under the age of 14 – with one saying the current system was demonstrably ineffective in ending the criminalisation and imprisonment of children.

Currently, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 across all Australian jurisdictions.

QLS yesterday (9 Feb) threw its support behind the proposed Bill amendments, saying current data and evidence demonstrated it was rare for children aged 10 to 14 to commit serious or violent offences.

QLS is one of 20 stakeholders scheduled to make oral submissions to the Committee on Monday, including Queensland’s Human Rights and Family and Child Commissions, Youth Advocacy Centre, Department of Education and Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs, Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Council, Truth, Healing and Reconciliation Taskforce and former Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson AO APM.

Queensland’s Youth Advocacy Centre (YAC), in its submission, said the case for raising the MACR to 14 years was objectively well-evidenced.

“The youth justice system and youth detention centres are not appropriate spaces for 10 to 13-year-olds,’’ YAC said.

“Youth offending is a developmental or social welfare issue at heart. It is best addressed by relying on evidence and research, so that effective responses, addressing the causes of children’s behaviours, can be put in place for the benefit of both the community and the individual child.

“Children should be at home, in school and participating in family and community activities. They do not belong in police stations, courts, and detention centres.”

A consortium of First Nations leadership groups – including the COOEE Indigenous Family and Community Education Centre, Bidjara Community and Goorathuntha Traditional Owners, Southeast Queensland First Nations Elders Alliance, Bayside Community Justice Group Elders and Brisbane – lodged a joint submission to support raising the MACR.

“Our position is founded in literature, best practice, our personal lived experience together with our families, the stories of our ancestors, our lore and our personal experience in working at the bleeding edge of the interface of the current ineffective laws with families and communities, particularly First Nations families and communities, but not exclusively,’’ the joint submission says.

“We have a strong and evidence-based belief that criminalising and incarcerating children of any age is an inhumane practice.

“It has no place in a civilised society. It inflicts immense psychological damage on already damaged children, seriously retards their social development and entrenches anti-social behaviour. Criminalising children is totally offensive to the underpinning values of a ‘civil society’.

“Child criminalisation destroys the life chances of children and tears families apart, it impacts particularly seriously on First Nations children and families, it is a significant driver of adult criminality, significantly reduces community safety, entrenches inter-generational trauma and poverty and demonstrably has wasted billions of dollars of taxpayers’ funds over recent decades.

Sisters Inside Chief Executive Officer Debbie Kilroy – a renowned and respected lawyer, human rights activist and prison reformer – said the current youth justice system had been demonstrably ineffective in ending the criminalisation and imprisonment of children, in particular First Nations children.

“Connections to country, family and services are essential to ensure children are not criminalised and imprisoned,’’ Ms Kilroy said.

“These connections cannot be built or maintained if children are in prisons or watch houses. We believe that the complete abolition of child prisons is necessary to ensure community safety and to create a just society that truly respects the ‘best interests’ of the child.

“The only response … is to invest in keeping children and their families safe and well. Raising the minimum age to at least 14-years-old will force us to consider more appropriate responses to this targeted group of children.

“We consider that this Bill is a step in the right direction and ought to be supported by the Committee.’’

Queensland’s Family and Child Commission also supports the amendment, with Principal Commissioner Cheryl Vardon saying it would ensure all children’s rights.

“An increase to the MACR in Queensland to 14 years should be considered as part of ongoing youth justice reforms ensuring children’s rights, wellbeing and safety are being upheld and protected,’’ Ms Vardon said.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are more likely than other children to come into contact with the justice system. In 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children made up 45% of young offenders in Queensland, while accounting for 7% of the total population aged 10-17 years.

“They also formed 71% of detainees in the two local (youth) detention centres.’’

Both the Queensland Mental Health Commission (QMHC) and Human Rights Commission (QHRC) support the Bill, saying Australia was already lagging behind most developed countries on this issue.

“The (QMHC) supports raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years … and also agrees that a national approach is required to raise the age of criminal responsibility across Australia,’’ the submission says.

“Most developed countries in the world have done this already.

“This approach is consistent with the recommendation by UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. It is also supported by evidence and many experts in the medical, legal, education, community and social services fields.

“Importantly, it is strongly supported by First Nations people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and advocates. Their voices need to be heard due to the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the criminal justice system.’’

The QHRC, in voicing its support to raise the MACR to 14, recommended that if the legislation was enacted, the government should commit to a state-wide consultation, engagement and review to identify critical new investment necessary to support children at risk.

Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS) Chief Executive Aimee McVeigh said young children did not belong in the criminal justice system, including prison.

“In consideration of Queensland’s Human Rights Act 2019 and following evidence of how best to respond to young children who engage in criminal activities, the Queensland Parliament should raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 10 to 14-years-of-age, and provide services and support to children, families, and communities,’’ Ms McVeigh’s submission says.

“QCOSS members are supportive of raising the MACR to 14.

“In a survey conducted in November 2021, 100% of our member organisations supported raising the MACR, with two-thirds of respondents providing services to children and families who were in contact with the youth justice system.”

Bar Association of Queensland President Tom Sullivan QC said the Bar particularly supported moves that would “retroactively expunge’’ child convictions.

“The Association notes the Bill, once passed, will have the immediate effect of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 and releasing any child under the age of 14 from detention or custody,’’ Mr Sullivan said.

“The Association also notes the retroactive application of the Bill, expunging the record of any convictions for any offence committed by a person who was, at the time of the offence, under the age of 14 and the destruction of any evidence gathered in respect of that conviction.

“In the Association’s view, these amendments are entirely appropriate and should be introduced.”

Caxton Legal Centre Chief Executive Cybele Koning said criminalisation of children in Queensland overwhelmingly affected First Nations children, particularly those already in the child protection system.

“These children are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged cohort in the Queensland community. Child correctional facilities are commonly at maximum capacity. The number of children detained in watch houses across Queensland is currently growing.

“A proportion of these children are aged 13 and under and have been detained in a watch house for five or more consecutive days. Caxton strongly supports the position that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to at least 14.’’

Read the submissions.

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