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Media Release: Government misses opportunity to keep children and community safe

Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 24 January 2024

The South Australian Government’s release of a discussion paper to explore raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12, while indicating that the Government is willing to engage with the community on this issue, is out of step with the evidence about what works to keep children and the community safe.

The Justice Reform Initiative’s SA Campaign Coordinator, Hannah March, said the government’s discussion paper, released on Wednesday, has missed the opportunity to engage fully with the overwhelming medical evidence and community experience that clearly supports 14 as the minimum age – developmentally and neurologically – that children could or should be held criminally responsible.

“Imprisonment, particularly at a young age, increases a child’s risk of becoming trapped in a cycle of criminal justice involvement. Too many children are ‘managed’ in prisons instead of receiving the support and care they need in the community. This makes the community less, not more, safe,” Ms March said.

“While it is positive that South Australia is recognising that children as young as 10 do not belong in prisons, legislative change and policy in this area must be driven by the evidence, not political point scoring”.

“We note that the Malinauskas government’s Advisory Commission into Incarceration Rates of Aboriginal People in SA recommended only last year that the age must be raised to 14, and that tens of thousands of South Australians support for this. The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, & Exploitation of People with Disability in September 2023 also recommended that the age be raised to 14.

“We urge the South Australian Government to press ahead with this critical reform but to not limit the public discussion to raising the age to only 12.”

“Most children who are in contact with the justice system have already experienced disadvantage at a young age – and this disadvantage is exacerbated in harmful prison settings. Children need support and care in the community, and access to specialist services.  While the discussion paper is an opportunity to outline a different service system, limiting the focus in the discussion to children under 12 is out of step with expert evidence and community expectation.”

The Tasmanian Liberal government has committed to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 with no exceptions alongside raising the minimum age of detention to 16 by 2029, setting course for Tasmania to become the first Australian jurisdiction that meet the minimum standards set by the United Nations and recommendations by medical and child development experts. Victoria and the ACT have also moved to raise the age to 14.

On an average night in 2022-23, there were around 31 children in detention in South Australia, costing $3,719 per child per day. This could be spent on community-led and evidence based programs that keep children out of prison and keep the wider community safe.

At the same time, there were 230 children under community supervision, costing $98 per day.

To our shame, South Australia disproportionately imprisons Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the youth justice system in South Australia, and most young children in detention come from disadvantaged or neurodiverse backgrounds.

About the Justice Reform Initiative

The Justice Reform Initiative is a multi-partisan alliance supported by more than 120 of our most eminent Australians, including two former Governors-General, former Members of Parliament from all sides of politics, academics, respected Aboriginal leaders, senior former judges, including High Court judges, and others who have added their voices to end Australia’s dangerously high reliance on jails. 

The Initiative is calling for governments around Australia to move away from an entrenched reliance on incarceration as the mainstay of the criminal justice system and adopt an evidence-based approach to deliver better results for taxpayers, communities and people in the criminal justice system.

Media contact: Amy Price 0437 027 156

The Initiative respectfully acknowledges and supports the current and longstanding efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reduce the numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated in Australia and, importantly, the leadership role which Indigenous-led organisations continue to play on this issue. We also acknowledge the work of many other individuals and organisations seeking change, such as those focused on the rate of imprisonment for women, people with mental health issues, people with disability and others.

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