Most Australians don’t realise that we put kids in prison. In a public opinion poll by the Australia Institute, 73% of Australians had no idea that children as young as ten are currently locked up in our prison system.
It’s not surprising, since most people imagine kids at that age to be, well… kids.
But the facts tell us that for some, this is not the case. The Commissioner for Children and Young People in WA reports that in 2018-2019, 143 children in WA spent time in unsentenced detention. This unsentenced detention can range from an average of 25 days for non-Indigenous children and 46 days for Indigenous children – keeping in mind that 78% of kids in detention are Indigenous.
The Uniting Church WA is calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14 in WA, and has joined Social Reinvestment WA in their ‘Raise the Age’ campaign.
“Too many of our young people are being taken away and put in careor entering the prison system. It means this generation are reliving the trauma of many years ago,” said Rev Robert Jetta, Chair of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress WA (Congress).
“We want the Government to support us to look after our young people. The funds that are being used to take kids away and lock kids up, we need to be spending that money on prevention, on supporting young mums and families to keep their kids.”
Social Reinvestment WA is a coalition of 25 nongovernment organisations, including the Uniting Church WA. It aims to create a safer, more harmonious community by sending less people to prison, and campaigning for more support for at risk individuals and families.
Sophie Stewart, Campaign Coordinator at Social Reinvestment WA said we have a responsibility to look after children, and our current legislation just doesn’t do that.
“The young people who are in our prison system – primary school aged children – they’re also among the most vulnerable population in our state. They’re from the most vulnerable communities,” she said. “A significant number of the kids who are in prison in WA are also in the child protection system, over 55% percent. So, these are kids who have already been let-down by families, and then they’re being letdown further by the system.
“These are some of the most traumatised vulnerable young people who often don’t have anybody to advocate for them.
Australia is globally behind
“We also know that the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is incredibly significant. Aboriginal communities are already facing incredibly difficult barriers, whether that’s to do with discrimination, entrenched disadvantage or intergenerational trauma.
“So, when we’re talking about these young people, these are children who need our community’s protection. We have a responsibility to take care of young people as a community, but we’re failing to do that.”
Despite knowing that a child’s brain is not fully developed, and that even the United Nations (UN) along with countries such as Canada, Germany and Switzerland, are calling Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 at a minimum, we are still imprisoning children. With our minimum age at 10 years old, Australia is well behind global standards on this issue.
Disturbingly, in 2018, Telethon Kids Institute found that 89% of incarcerated children had significant cognitive impairments, including Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
“We also know that there’s a huge number of children with disabilities in our prison system,” Sophie said. “Nine out of ten of the young people in WA prisons, in Banksia Hill, have significant cognitive disabilities and a significant amount of them have Fetal Alcohol Disorder. Which means their cognitive functioning and their ability to control their emotions is so much more difficult.
“All of the medical consensus and scientific consensus, supported by the Australian Medical Association, the Royal College of Australian Paediatricians, and other significant medical bodies, is that children under the age of 14 do not have the neurological development to be held responsible at the level of criminal responsibility.
“All children are learning and growing. What the science tells us is that they do not have the necessary understanding of consequential behaviour. They also don’t have the emotional capacity yet to regulate their emotions and behaviours – they’re susceptible to peer pressure and risk taking at much higher levels.
“These are children that need guidance and support, they’re not people that we need to punish and lock away.”
Social Reinvestment WA believe that Australia has an international legal responsibility to provide children with the right to a safe, happy childhood.
“The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child really lays out what children are entitled to,” Sophie said. “And by incarcerating children and putting them through the criminal justice system, we’re often denying them those really basic rights that young people around the world should have.
“We’re an advanced society and community. How do we measure ourselves as a community if we’re not protecting our youngest, our littlest, our most vulnerable members?”
Prevention is key
Sophie explained that a lot of kids that end up in the justice system do so under WA’s mandatory three strike rule. She believes that we need more prevention measures, to help kids who may be at risk of entering the system.
“We have mandatory sentencing for three strikes in Western Australia, and that’s law,” she said. “Often it’s the most vulnerable people that end up in detention because there isn’t necessarily a responsible parent or safe place designated that they could go to. So, if we had more safe bail houses, if we had more places and support for kinship carers and foster carers, you’d see less people ending up in the prison system.
“We don’t have enough early intervention and prevention. Most of the young people who’ve come into our justice system have come up on the radar of multiple other service providers before then.
“If we had a more connected system of support, and a more community-based system of support, we’d be able to recognise the unique needs of struggling young people and their families earlier on, and respond to the underlying causes of offending before they end up in the justice system.
“Where there is poverty, disadvantage and trauma, people are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. We can avoid that by resourcing and responding to people earlier. And that means resourcing organisations that work with struggling young people and their families.”
Once a child has been incarcerated, they are more likely to be set up on a path of self-destruction. Sophie said that putting children before police, judges and through the system in a negative way institutionalises them.
“When a child goes through the criminal justice system, there’s a whole lot of really detrimental impacts,” she said. “Putting young people not just in detention but though the justice system, causes them long-term psychological harm.
“Juvenile detention and prison is like ‘crime university’. When we put young people into a prison system they associate with older people, they associate with other people who are involved in criminal behaviour and what we really want is to be encouraging pro-social behaviour in these young people.
“We want to be surrounding them with influences that are going to help lift them up. And our current criminal justice system, that punishes and criminalises people who don’t have the capacity to make decisions, really fails to do that.
“The stigma from the rest of the community about going into a juvenile detention centre and having been in there, and the separation from family and community is incredibly damaging to those young people. Especially when you’ve got young people who are flown from the Kimberley, hundreds of thousands of kilometres away, to be in juvenile detention in Banksia Hill where it’s a huge culture shock.”
Not only does being in detention separate children from their communities, the current system doesn’t offer a suitable level of reintegration back into their outside lives.
“There’s a real lack of reintegration, and that integration is critical to someone succeeding and building a better future for themselves and for thriving on the outside. People seem to think that people are going into prison and coming out fixed, but that’s not the case. Fifty five percent of young people in our system go back within two years.
“We’re really not effectively rehabilitating these young people. If you look at the services that are provided in prison, they’re not getting intensive rehabilitation support.
“If we care about our young people and think imprisoning them is the way to fix it, then surely at least we should be doing that.”
We can raise the age right now
If the campaign is successful, and the age of criminal responsibility is changed to 14, there needs to be a plan for kids under that age who find themselves in trouble with the law. Sophie believes that could look like community support through programs and early intervention. Some of these programs are actually already in place for children under the age of 10, meaning the age could be lifted immediately.
“There are already children under the age of ten who come into contact with the justice system. So we don’t have to change the entire system, we can just raise the age.”
Currently, police divert at risk children under the age of ten to programs run by various departments, such as the Department of Communities.
Sophie wants to see more effective diversionary methods in place. She also wants to see a ‘no wrong door approach’ where other people within the community – not just the police – would be able to divert at risk youth, such as teachers and health workers.
“We have to have the right programs funded, and we have to get the right support to the right young people at the right time,” she said.
There are already a number of successful programs in place, like the Youth Partnership Project in Armadale and Gosnells, which identifies at risk youth between the ages of eight and twelve who haven’t yet offended, and engages them in holistic support; and the Olabud Doogethu (All of Us Together) reinvestment project in Halls Creek, delivering alternative education models for local Aboriginal at risk children.
“There are programs that we know work, the evidence base is there, it’s really about resourcing them,” Sophie said. “There really needs to be partnership with communities on the ground to develop their own community based approaches that will work for those particular communities.”
“We need to use common sense: these are children. As a community we have a responsibility to take care of children, especially the most vulnerable.”
Find out more on the Social Reinvestment WA website at socialreinvestmentwa.org.au/raise-the-age
Sign the national Raise the Age petition at raisetheage.org.au
Read the Uniting Church WA’s call to Raise the Age at revivemagazine.org.au/2020/09/14/reduce-the-number-of-aboriginal-children-in-care
Write to your local MP and tell them you care about this issue.
Listen to Social Reinvestment WA’s Stories From the Inside podcast. The second season is out now and available from wherever you listen to your podcasts.