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SA undecided on lifting criminal age from 10 as protestors rally for change

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The State Government is yet to decide whether to change laws to prevent children aged as young as 10 from being charged with criminal offences, as protestors gather at Victoria Square to demand reform following Federal Government inaction.

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Protestors are gathering at Victoria Square this afternoon to mark 30 years since the national report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was handed down.

The protestors will call on the SA Government to implement all the recommendations of the Royal Commission and to demand that the age of criminal responsibility be lifted from 10 to 14 years.

Chapman has previously said that she would wait until all states and territories formed a consensus on whether the criminal age needed to be raised before changing South Australia’s Young Offenders Act.

But a Queensland Government election commitment to keep the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 10 and contrasting moves by the ACT Government to raise the age to 14 have thrown hopes of a national approach out the window.

Earlier this week, the federal Attorney-General’s Department said it was now up to states and territories to decide whether to raise the age of criminal responsibility, after the Council of Attorneys-General failed to reach a national consensus after four years of deliberation.

In a statement to InDaily, Chapman described the move as a “lost” opportunity.

“I will continue to discuss this matter with my colleagues interstate and nationally, as well as work with those on the ground in South Australia who best understand the system and possible implications of change,” she said.

“In South Australia, custodial sentences for children under the age of 14 are rarely imposed.

“This is because between the ages of 10 and 14 the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the child knew at the time of the alleged conduct that it was seriously wrong in a criminal sense, not just that it was ‘wrong’ or ‘naughty’.”

But InDaily reported in November that South Australian primary school-aged children – some as young as 10-years-old – were incarcerated 133 times over the past year.

Most 10 to 13-year-old children detained during the 2019-20 financial year were Aboriginal, had disabilities and/or were cared for under the guardianship of the Child Protection Department.

Nationally, it is estimated that almost 600 children aged between 10 and 13 were in custody last financial year. More than 60 per cent of those children were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

South Australian Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright, who is legislated to advocate for young people in detention, said she was “extremely disappointed” with the Council of Attorneys-General’s decision.

“This is an issue of national significance, and goes to the heart of who we are as a country,” she told InDaily.  

“Why are we willing to lock up ten year old children because they are old enough to take responsibility for their actions when we don’t trust 17-year-olds to cast a vote?

“We have been waiting for four years for a national commitment to increase the age to 14 but the Attorneys-General have failed to tackle this head on.”

A report released by Wright in July quotes young detainees who said they were bullied at South Australia’s Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre in Cavan.

“When I was 10, I was locked up. I’ve spent three birthdays over there [Jonal campus] and two in here [Goldsborough]. The first time, I was 10. It was very scary,” one is quoted.

Another said: “When I first came in at 12 years of old, I was in the games room: they [other detainees] would threaten me … I was scared of them and I was too scared to tell staff. One was 17 years old.”

In January, more than 30 United Nations member states, including Canada, France and Germany, called on Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

Protestors have joined calls to lift the age of criminal responsibility in South Australia at this afternoon’s “Stop Aboriginal Deaths in Custody” rally.

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The rally, which is organised by the SOSBlakAustralia action group, will hear from Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement board members and South Australian families whose relatives have died in custody.

Organisers say lifting the age of criminal responsibility would help stem the flow of Aboriginal children entering the criminal justice system.

On any given day in South Australia, Aboriginal children represent the majority of young people in youth detention, despite representing only about five per cent of the state’s total child population.

The SA Greens currently have a Bill before state parliament to lift minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14.

MLC Tammy Franks said the Federal Government was “steadfastly refusing to step up, so we must do it ourselves”.

“We know that imprisoning primary school-aged kids causes immense harm, and does nothing to keep the community safe in the long run,” she said.

“Every day that these kids spend in the Youth Training Centre is a day too long, especially when there are much better alternatives.”

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