OPINION: On National Sorry Day, let's not forsake another generation

It's time Australian states raised the age of criminal responsibility

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Incoming Indigenous affairs minister Linda Burney. Picture: AAP

Incoming Indigenous affairs minister Linda Burney. Picture: AAP


Raising the age is a reform which is not only long overdue, but is also widely supported by the community.


Imagine for a moment you had a young person in your life. You might be a parent, an aunt, an uncle or a grandparent.

Now say that young person takes some money from your wallet - it might be 50 cents, maybe $50.

You find out either by catching them in the act, or they confess when you notice the money is gone.

How would you go about dealing with that incident?

You may take them aside and discuss with them what they did and why it was wrong. You may mete out a punishment that helps them understand that stealing is wrong.

You will likely approach them with adult wisdom which appreciates that people - children in particular - make mistakes, and can still be shaped and guided to become good people, despite these relatively small transgressions.

You probably wouldn't resort to corporal punishment to deal with the issue, because it has rightly become socially - indeed, legally - unacceptable to beat children in the way it was once the mainstay of a parents' tool kit.

We have agreed as a society that violent and punitive measures are not only unacceptable, they don't achieve the outcomes we want.

A nurturing approach that holds young people to account for their actions and empowers them to make good decisions is a far more effective approach.

So it is perplexing to me that we still think it's OK to send little kids to prison.

And yet, every state and territory is currently keeping kids as young as 10 behind bars, many of them on remand and not even having been found guilty of any crime.

Thankfully the ACT has taken national leadership on this issue, and has shown courage, compassion and common sense in pursuing a vital legislative change in 2022.

The ACT is the first Australian jurisdiction to commit to raising the age of criminal responsibility - a reform which is not only long overdue, but is also widely supported by the community.

In research commissioned by Amnesty International last year, Australians overwhelmingly agreed with raising the age to 14. Most believed 16 was the age at which children could be sent to jail.

And let's be clear, we're not talking about hardened criminals here - the rate of serious crimes like homicide among children aged 10 to 14 is vanishingly small (0.2 offences committed per 100,000 children aged 10 to 14, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).

This supportive and therapeutic approach - helping guide kids to make good choices - is what diversion programs, rather than prison, offer. The results from various pilot programs around the country show across the board that reoffending rates drop, and kids are able to move on from minor mistakes to live happy and healthy lives.

The only real issue with diversion programs is that they only seem to be funded for the short term, with populist politicians bowing to the noisy "tough on crime" minority and spending truly obscene amounts on policing and prison when we know they just don't work.

Now that we have a new federal government, there is a strong role for them to play in this by properly funding diversion programs and showing leadership for the states and territories. Incoming Indigenous affairs minister Linda Burney herself said Labor was committed to raising the age, but we need a firm commitment that it will be raised to 14, at the very least.

On National Sorry Day, we have an opportunity to change the trajectory of the lives of young people and avoid the damage and trauma wrought by racist policy. It's time to raise the age to at least 14.

  • Maggie Munn is lead Indigenous rights campaigner for Amnesty International Australia.