Jailing children must end, say Church leaders

by Marilyn Rogrigues, The Catholic Weekly

Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Berrimah, Northern Territory. PHOTO: Bidgee/Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0

Advocates say raising the age of criminal responsibility part of a moral response to the problem of child crime

Catholic leaders are backing a nation-wide campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years, saying that allowing children as young as 10 to be incarcerated is immoral and opposed to human dignity.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than 900 children aged 10 to 13 were placed in youth detention in Australia in 2018-19. More than 65 per cent of them were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children. In the Northern Territory, the youth detention centres in Darwin and Alice Springs are often occupied solely by indigenous youth.


– Fr Peter Smith, Justice and Peace Promoter

Last week Federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash ruled out a nation-wide approach to the issue, telling media that each state and territory needed to decide whether to raise the minimum age.

Chief executive officer of Jesuit Social Services Julie Edwards expressed “deep disappointment” that the issue did not make the agenda at last month’s Council of Attorneys-General meeting for 2021.

She said the Federal Government’s decision to refer the decision-making back to states and territories will condemn more vulnerable children to unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system.

“We are deeply disappointed that, despite a wealth of evidence from Australia and abroad showing that children under 14 years do not possess the neurological maturity to form criminal intent, the Council of Attorneys-General has ultimately handballed responsibilities about this issue back to state governments,” she said.

“This means that primary school aged children as young as 10 years will continue to be incarcerated across Australia, despite our low age of criminal responsibility being out of touch with international standards and against the United Nations’ recommendations.”

Darwin Bishop Charles Gauci said he supports the ongoing campaign to raise the age of criminality and called for a bipartisan approach to the issue. The bishop, who washed the feet of young people in Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre last Holy Thursday, strongly supports a cross-party and multi-disciplinary approach to ending the arrest and incarceration of Australian children aged 10-13.

“We need different arms of government and the different parties to rise above politics and work together on this with Aboriginal leaders and others to find a solution to this very complex area,” he said.

“It is true that there is a lot of crime being done by children, particularly in Alice Springs, but I think we need to comprehensively look at the situation and resist any knee-jerk reaction,” he said.

“Certainly the answer is not incarcerating children. We need to look at ways to deal with a difficult and complex situation, and be very mindful of the dignity of the human person throughout the whole process.”

Justice and Peace Promoter for the Archdiocese of Sydney Fr Peter Smith said that the fact that First nation children overwhelmingly form the majority of children in detention, reaching 100 percent in the Northern Territory, shows that race has been criminalised in the country.


Julie Edwards, Chief Executive Officer, Jesuit Social Services

“We know that when a child enters the criminal justice system their chances of being caught up in that system for the rest of their lives escalates,” he said. “Imagine your little boy or girl locked away in jail because they were cheeky, because they stole a couple of packets of biscuits or because they were found wandering the streets.

“It is an appalling indictment on us, not the kids, that we allow this to happen.

Fr Smith said the Catholic Church made its position on imprisonment clear in 1903, when it said that authority is exercised legitimately “only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it”.

“Imprisoning little children for non-violent crimes, for as much as stealing a packet of biscuits, is an abuse of power and people of good faith must speak out and demand we as a community raise the age of criminality to 14 years of age,” he said.

This article was first published in The Catholic Weekly on 21 April 2021. Republished with thanks.