Maher, who is also Aboriginal Affairs Minister, told parliament last week that a long-standing call to lift the age of criminal responsibility in South Australia from 10 to 14 was an “important issue”.
He said he would continue to meet with stakeholders to determine whether South Australia should raise the criminal age, noting that doing so was “something that we (the state government) will be turning our mind to”.
“I don’t think there is any doubt whatsoever that Aboriginal children, as a percentage, make up far too big a portion of our youth detention,” he said in response to questions from Greens MLC Robert Simms.
“Raising the age, with appropriate other programs, could go some way to meeting that.”
Under current legislation, children aged between 10 and 14 are deemed incapable of understanding the full consequences of their actions, but that is a rebuttable presumption, meaning judges can convict them of criminal offences and sentence them to detention if their crimes are deemed serious.
In 2020-21, 43 children aged between 10 and 13 were incarcerated at the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre at Cavan in Adelaide’s north.
The Training Centre Visitor says “many” of those children are Aboriginal, have disabilities, or are in the child protection system.
“We know that in both adult prisons and in youth detention there is a massive over-representation of Aboriginal people,” Maher said.
“A couple of years ago, I was told of a statistic that on occasions the entire population of the youth detention centre in South Australia is made up of Aboriginal people.
“There have been occasions when that is the case.
“Now that we are in government, I will be keen to test some of the things that I have been told.”
Last year, more than 30 United Nations countries – including Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Greece and Mexico – called on Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.
But despite international pressure and calls from the Australian Medical Association, Law Society and Indigenous groups, progress has stalled.
The Marshall Government said it preferred to wait until all state and territory Attorneys-General reached a national consensus on whether to lift the criminal age before it considered introducing legislation to South Australia’s Parliament.
At the time, then Attorney-General Vickie Chapman told InDaily that South Australia would “fail” its children if it changed the law without first finding other ways to manage young offenders.
However, hopes of a national consensus dashed last year after the Council of Attorneys-General failed to settle on a position after four years of deliberation.
The Northern Territory has previously committed to raising its criminal age to 12, while the ACT has pledged to lift its minimum age to 14.
Maher told parliament that he would speak to his ACT counterpart Shane Rattenbury about the approach he had taken.
“I haven’t done so yet, but very keen to do so,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Greens have introduced their own bill to parliament calling for the criminal age to be lifted from 10 to 14.
MLC Robert Simms told parliament that the current system was “punishing the most vulnerable” and “further adding to the disadvantage that is already faced by these (Aboriginal) communities”.
A report released by Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright in 2020 quotes detainees who were sentenced to the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre from a young age.
“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.”
It is unknown how many times children aged between 10 and 14 are charged with an offence in South Australia, with SA Police previously telling InDaily that it does not collate the information in one location.
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