Raise The Age: 'the idea of a 10-year-old being locked up makes me feel sick'

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

As the mother of a 10-year-old, I can't imagine how anyone could lock them up

My son is turning 10 next month. It's a big thing for him, turning "double digits", and he's super excited about what it means for him in his hurry to grow up. I love this age – children are a delightful mix of budding independence and yet still such a child.

My son won't let me kiss, hug, or even talk to him when I drop him off at the school gate in the morning because having a mum is incredibly embarrassing. But as he gives me a surreptitious wave each morning, he then spins on his heel and literally skips through the school gate to his waiting friends. It's so cute and un-self-aware in its childishness, that I wish he could hold onto it forever. 

And every night when I tuck him into bed, my son tells me he loves me, and we go through our evening ritual of kisses, hugs and high fives. He can't go to sleep without them, he tells me.  

What my son's 10th birthday next month also means is that he'll be old enough to go to prison. Children in Australia can be arrested, taken to court and locked away in detention from the age of 10.

You may have seen the hashtag #RaiseTheAge trending on social media recently. It's a campaign to lobby the attorneys-general from each of the Australian states to raise the age of criminal responsibility, from 10 to 14. 

Most countries around the world have a minimum age that people can be held responsible for their crimes. In Australia, that's currently 10.

I think about my son, so young and still so clueless about the world, and the idea that a child his age could be locked up makes me feel sick. 

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I visited a youth detention centre for work a few years ago, and although the staff seemed like good people who were doing their best to help, the place was still cold and clinical – and children were isolated and locked away from everything and everyone they know and feel comfortable with.

Children as young as 10 were in with others up to the age of 17, and many had witnessed – or were subjected to – violence, self-harm or suicide attempts. Over half of the children had some kind of mental health problem. 

Over 600 children aged 10 to 13 were subject to youth detention in Australia last year, reports lobby group #RaiseTheAge, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being grossly over-represented, making up 53 per cent of that group.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that most children held in youth detention:

  • come from a disadvantaged community
  • come from a family under severe financial, health, housing and other forms of stress
  • have mental and/or cognitive, hearing or other disability
  • have experienced violence and abuse
  • are in out-of-home care, or
  • are an Indigenous child.

I think about how scared my son would be if he ended up in youth detention, and how little understanding he would have of what was going on.

I would hope if he got mixed up in something, that he could be supported and helped to find a better, more constructive way forward – for him, for his family, and for society. But at least my son has had the advantage of a safe and privileged upbringing.

Knowing that the children who do make it into youth detention have already experienced disadvantage just makes their need for support rather than a punitive approach more urgent.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child agrees, calling on all countries to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14. China, Russia, Germany, Spain, Sierra Leone, Azerbaijan, Cambodia and Rwanda have already taken this step, but Australia has been slow to join the club. 

Last week, the states' attorneys-general chose to put off their decision on the matter until next year, leaving young children vulnerable for at least another six months. 

Once our law makers have taken the time to mull over how young is too young to accept criminal responsibility, hopefully they'll then think about how they can help to address disadvantage in our society, how children and their families can be supported rather than punished through challenging circumstances, and how we can solve the inherent disadvantages some groups continue to suffer in our "lucky country".

Because right now there are 10-year-olds in cells who don't belong there, and damage being done that may never be reversed. Each one is someone's child, and each one deserves a chance.