More than 60,000 people have signed a petition urging the New South Wales government to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, and stop the practice of allowing children as young as 10 to be arrested, handcuffed and even strip-searched.
It is part of a national campaign to raise the age, which last year saw the attorneys general of all Australian states and territories agree to move toward raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12. That step has been criticised as too small by justice advocates, who say raising the age to 12 will have a minimal impact on youth imprisonment rates.
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW is using the campaign to raise the age of legal responsibility to urgently ban the strip-searching, handcuffing and arrest of young children.
The legal service’s CEO, Karly Warner, said the current law, which allowed for the arrest and strip-search of children as young as 10, was out of step with community views.
Police officers are only permitted to conduct strip-searches of people aged between 10 and 18 if they are in the presence of a parent or guardian, or, if the child does not agree to a parent or guardian being present, in the presence of someone else who is not a police officer who represents their interests.
“It’s basic decency and common sense that children need support, love and second chances – they belong in their homes, in schools and in playgrounds, not behind bars,” Warner said.
Raising the age would also reduce youth incarceration rates, which is part of the NSW government’s Closing the Gap commitments, she said.
“The NSW government has promised to reduce the rate of Aboriginal children and young people in detention by at least 30%,” she said.
The NSW attorney general, Mark Speakman, was served with a petition of more than 63,000 signatures – including from lawyers and human rights experts – calling for the law to be changed.
Figures released by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research in April showed that 43% of children in detention in the state were Indigenous.
Similar petitions are expected to be handed to the attorneys general of South Australia, Queensland and Victoria in the coming weeks.
The ACT is the only jurisdiction to have confirmed it will increase the age of criminal responsibility, but so far no legislation has been introduced.
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Cheryl Axleby, the CEO of Change the Record, said it was time for governments to act on commitments to reduce the incarceration rates of both children and adults.
“The current institutions aren’t working,” Axleby said. “We just see more intergenerational incarceration in the current institutions … They just drive our kids and our people further into the system.”
She said raising the age of criminal responsibility, listening to Indigenous voices and working together was in line with the federal government’s stated aims in improving the lives of First Peoples.
“We talk about the voice to parliament, recognising us and closing the gap – there are all these commitments being made – this is just one way that the government can be brave and break that cycle of incarceration,” she said.
The issue will be on the agenda again at the council of attorneys general meeting this month.
“This has been on the agenda for over three years sitting at their table,” Axleby said. “The time has come for us to be creative and to try and create a new pathway for the future generations of young Australians.”