It’s a report that politicians don’t want you to see.
Over 130 pages, it describes the dismal failures of Australia’s youth detention policy – a country that continues to lock up school-aged children despite evidence that incarceration only worsens crime .
Prepared for the Board of Attorneys General with input from State, Territory and Commonwealth Justice Departments, as well as 93 public submissions, the report was finalized in 2020.
More than two years later, it remains buried.
Multiple Freedom of Information requests to obtain it have been denied. Governments barely acknowledged the existence of the document, marked “Sensitive – Cabinet” and “not for wider circulation or publication”.
It’s time to take a look inside.
Four Corners, as part of an investigation into ongoing abuse within juvenile detention, has obtained a report from the Board of Attorneys General’s review examining the age of criminal responsibility.
Sometimes the language is academic. Sometimes it’s brutal. The recommendation is clear: no child under the age of 14 should be prosecuted for a criminal offence.
“Commonwealth, State and Territory governments should raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14, without exception,” the report says – a finding backed by the majority of justice departments across the country.
Australia is one of the only developed countries in the world to prosecute and detain children as young as 10 years old. The world average is 14 years. What is common in this country is banned by countries like Russia and China.
The United Nations has repeatedly condemned Australia’s position.
After each state and territory’s justice departments agreed to the review in late 2018, former federal attorney general Christian Porter opposed a change, saying it wasn’t “too enthusiastic” about the idea of reforming a system that worked “relatively well”.
This same system is criticized from almost every angle in the report prepared for the attorneys general.
It shows that the children Australia puts behind barbed wire are often Indigenous boys and girls with disabilities and neurological conditions such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
They often experienced homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse. Many of their relatives spent time in prison. Many are in the child welfare system.
“A child under the age of 14 is unlikely to understand the impact of his or her actions or to have the maturity to engage criminal liability,” the report concludes.
For the same reason, detention is unlikely to have as much of a deterrent effect. Children tend to lack the brain development needed to understand the consequences of their actions.
Not only is detention unlikely to work, it is likely to make things worse.
While children “almost never commit the most serious offences,” their incarceration can lead to even more serious behavioral problems.
“Placing a child in detention can disrupt normal brain development and aggravate pre-existing trauma,” reads one conclusion.
“Detention creates lifelong negative outcomes.”
These results include the risk of cycling in and out of detention, both as a child and as an adult.
Many children naturally grow out of risky and impulsive behavior that can lead to crime. But detention interferes with this maturation process, according to evidence cited in the report.
Children are exposed to the influence of much older inmates and are traumatized by their time inside. Four Corners investigation uncovers worrying restraint practices used on children in Western Australia
“Studies confirm that the justice system is criminogenic,” the report said. In other words, he causes the crime.
“The younger a child is when they first enter the youth justice system, the more likely they are to re-offend and become entrenched in the system.”
When Mr. Porter and his state counterparts signed off on the national review in 2018, it was decided they would likely report within a year.
But since the report was finalized in 2020, hopes for a coordinated raising of the age of criminal responsibility to 14 have been abandoned.
So far, only the ACT has committed to raising the age to 14. Tasmania will continue to prosecute children up to the age of 14 but will no longer send them to juvenile detention. The Northern Territory last month introduced legislation to raise the age to 12.
State governments and the Commonwealth say they are continuing to consider proposals.
New South Wales Attorney General Mark Speakman, whose state has the largest population of children in custody, has said publicly that he has no position on raising the age.
And in Western Australia, Prime Minister Mark McGowan’s lack of action not only defies the findings of the report – which was led by WA’s Department of Justice – but his own party. At its last state conference, WA Labor voted to raise the age to 14.
Mr McGowan said last week he did not support raising the age to 14 “under any circumstances”.
At federal level, the Labor government has said it supports raising the age to 14, but remains vague on what it will actually do.
All of this leaves Australia on the fringes when it comes to dealing with children who commit crimes.
The lack of political will may have something to do with one of the main risks of the policy identified in the report – “community perception”.
The review found that some people might think that raising the age would mean children “get off with it” and put community safety at risk.
But he also notes that the community would be more receptive if Australia developed appropriate alternatives to detention – which keep the public and children safe.
It would also require investments in areas such as health, education, disability support and child protection to keep children out of trouble in the first place.
If Australia has chosen to raise the age, it has many places around the world to look for role models.
Scotland, for example, no longer uses juvenile detention for children under 16 and is looking to raise that number to 18. Instead, children are treated in specialized hearings with an emphasis on the welfare of the child.
Those who pose a risk to others are placed in secure accommodation, with a focus on education and unmet needs.
“We will be seen as barbarians by future generations because we lock up 10-year-old children,” says Mick Gooda, a man from Ghangulu, who led the Royal Commission into the Northern Territory’s Don Dale centre.
“We make kids criminally responsible at 10. We don’t let them drink in pubs until they’re 18. We don’t let them get a driver’s licence, even apprentices, until they’re 16.”
Gooda attributes the lack of action to “law and order politics” which fosters fear in the community.
“We have to get politicians with a bit of courage to step up and say, ‘This is not the way to do this’. Because they are the ones who are being pushed into these punitive approaches.”
As Gooda puts it, “we have a recipe for making things worse for children.”
The question is why does Australia continue to do so?
Watch Four Corners’ investigation into child abuse in Australian youth detention centers on ABC iview.