Stop locking up Aussie kids, pleads Amnesty

Larrakia elder Jeanneen McLennan pleads for children to be allowed to be children rather than locked inside facilities like Don Dale in Darwin.
Larrakia elder Jeanneen McLennan pleads for children to be allowed to be children rather than locked inside facilities like Don Dale in Darwin.

A fresh bid to end the jailing of 10-year-old Australian children took place in the shadow of one of the most notorious children’s prisons in the country today.

Campaigners posed across the mesh fence of the Don Dale Detention Centre, just outside Darwin.

Don Dale is so badly on the nose, after it was outed by a Royal Commission and a media barrage, it is to be torn down and replaced by another.

There are between 20 and 30 children inside its stark walls today, right down to the age of 10, which remains the age Australians can earn a criminal record.

Almost all the little children in Don Dale are Indigenous, most have already been removed from their families and were in government-sponsored care before they took one wrong step too many.

According to Amnesty’s Indigenous advisor Rodney Dillon once inside Don Dale, that’s most likely where they’ll stay, or prisons like it.

“Kids who come into this system never come out of it,” he said.

Indigenous groups, lawyers and Amnesty met outside Don Dale calling for the legal age for jailing to be lifted to 14.

Don Dale is to be replace with another detention centre, to be built nearby within the next year.

Don Dale is to be replace with another detention centre, to be built nearby within the next year.

With the human rights spotlight already on Don Dale, the pressure has switched from other states like Queensland for the NT to end the injustice of children as young as 10 being held back in life by a criminal record, said Amnesty International in Darwin today.

The NT Government, like all in Australia, is harming children at a crucial time in their development, by criminalising them at the young ages of 10 to 13, they claimed.

While there still must be consequences for children committing crimes, it should not be jail, they said.

This is far younger than the rest of the world, where the median minimum age children are locked up is 14, Amnesty said.

There were several supporters at the campaign launch today from Katherine.

Eight-year-old Shaiqua from Katherine was at the campaign launch today.

Eight-year-old Shaiqua from Katherine was at the campaign launch today.

Amnesty today stood alongside Territory health and legal experts Olga Havnen, representative of Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT, and Matthew Littlejohn, barrister from William Forster Chambers, outside Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, to release a summary paper on the issue.

The experts called on Attorney-General Natasha Fyles and Minister for Territory Families Dale Wakefield to urgently address the ongoing crisis in the NT youth justice system by raising the minimum age the NT can give a child a criminal record to 14.

“If a 12 year old child isn’t old enough to have a Facebook account, they aren’t old enough to be shackled with a criminal record,” Mr Dillon said.

Mr Dillon also admitted that politicians were too easily swayed by neighborhood Facebook pages which focussed attention on petty crime.

Olga Havnen said, “Criminalising 10-13 year old children flies in the face of the latest brain science on when the brain matures. It also ignores the role of trauma in regulating emotion, behaviour and impulsivity. A high proportion of children who come into contact with justice system have experienced trauma, which is often an underlying cause of offending behaviour.”

Matthew Littlejohn said, “Young people are particularly vulnerable when exposed to the criminal justice system. They require support, education, and diversion, not incarceration. It has been clear for a long time that locking up young kids does enormous damage, to the children, their families, and their communities.

“Just because they may have broken the law does not mean they deserve to be broken by the system. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 not only brings us into line with international standards, it reinforces our obligation to protect and rehabilitate young people at their most vulnerable.”

The Northern Territory has committed to raising the minimum criminal age, but, despite new evidence from human rights, health, legal and community experts, has only committed to raising it to 12.

The Territory Government’s expected deadline to raise the age - sometime after 2021 - is also so far in the future that hundreds of Territory children will be damaged before that time.

The children locked up in that time are more likely to become adult offenders, with children locked up before age 14 three times as likely to become chronic adult offenders than children locked up after 14. Imprisoning 10-14 year old children also makes them less likely to complete high school, complete further education and training, and gain employment.

Today’s summary paper echoes the findings of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that the Government would better prevent offending by keeping children away from the justice system, and by expanding ‘place-based’ programs that support children and families to overcome problems in their young lives.