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Lifting criminal age of responsibility to 14 a ‘bridge too far’, committee told

Raising Queensland’s minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 10 to 14 years was a “bridge too far’’ and should only be lifted to the age of 12, according to the state’s former police chief and head of 2018’s Queensland Government-commissioned youth justice report.

Queensland’s current Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Council co-chair Bob Atkinson AO APM today (14 Feb) told the parliamentary Community Support and Services Committee there was “no quick fix or simple solution’’ to youth crime and believed the MACR should only be raised to 12.

Mr Atkinson was one of almost 20 stakeholders – including Queensland Law Society – to make oral submissions and be questioned by the Committee during public hearings on proposed changes to the ‘Criminal Law (Raising the Age of Responsibility) Amendment Bill 2021’ (Bill).

While the majority of speakers supported lifting the MACR to 14, Mr Atkinson said he believed it should be raised from 10 to 12 years.

“Fourteen is a bridge too far,’’ Mr Atkinson said.

“I would be concerned that raising the age of criminal responsibility to any age from 10, to either 12 or 14 or any age, would have to be accompanied by a capacity to properly respond to what would otherwise be a serious criminal offence. There is no quick fix.”

Having served almost 45 years in the Queensland Police Service – including 12 years as the state’s police commissioner – Mr Atkinson was appointed in early 2018 to head up a taskforce by the Child Safety and Youth Justice Minister to investigate, report and advise the government on a range of youth justice reforms.

In his report released in July 2018, Mr Atkinson made 77 recommendations to overhaul the way Queensland dealt with young offenders and engaged with disadvantaged young people.

Recommendations in the report included continued investment in early intervention to prevent youth offending, keeping minor offences out of the court system, reducing the number of young people in youth detention, and options to divert young people away from the youth justice system.

Mr Atkinson today told the Committee little had changed since and that his opinion regarding the lifting of the MACR to 12 was recently supported by Australia’s state Attorneys-General.

“It would be fundamentally important, though, that if we were to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to any other age that there is a capacity to properly and effectively deal with young people who otherwise would be committing offences,” he said.

“I’m not sure – and I’m not pretending to be an authority on what happens in Australia – but there are complex and difficult issues and I don’t know that any jurisdiction in Australia is yet in a position to be able to do that.”

In November, the Meeting of Attorneys-General (MAG) – which included Queensland – released a communique in support for uniform, nation-wide MACR laws be increased to 12.

“State Attorneys-General supported development of a proposal to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, including with regard to any carve outs, timing and discussion of implementation requirements,’’ the MAG statement says.

“The Northern Territory has committed to raising the age to 12, and will continue to work on reforms including adequate and effective diversion programs and services.

“The Australian Capital Territory has also committed to raising the age, and is working on its own reforms.”

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 – appeared at the hearing in support of raising the MACR to 14.

“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.’’

QLS President Kara Thompson, joined by the QLS Children’s Law Committee Chair Damien Bartholomew and the QLS Human Rights and Public Law Committee member Keryn Ruska, told the committee the Society “strongly supports’’ the MACR being lifted to “at least 14’’.

The Committee’s report and its recommendations on the proposed Bill are due to be delivered by 15 March.

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