The Northern Territory’s Aboriginal legal agency is calling for police to adopt an immediate moratorium on arrests of children under the age of 12, in the wake of the youth detention royal commission.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 was among the first recommendations highlighted by the commissioners when they handed down their report on Friday.
The NT Government has accepted the recommendation in principal.
The principal legal officer from the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, David Woodroffe, said police and prosecutors should put an immediate stop to child arrests.
“Let’s take the opportunity, let’s get to work, let’s actually stop getting kids coming in to the criminal justice system and detention,” he said.
“This, again, is a great opportunity that the commission has provided for the Northern Territory to lead the way for the rest of the country.”
He said that arrests at an early age risked entrenching young people in the criminal justice system in ways that could have lifelong consequences, adding that he had represented children “whose feet couldn’t even touch the ground” when they sat in court room chairs.
“We know there are greater opportunities through getting kids into schools, working with families, to actually deal with those problems if there are kids getting into trouble at such young ages,” he said.
He said “delinquency” under the age of 12 should be handled as a health or welfare issue.
The commission found that there had been an eight-fold increase in the number of arrests of children aged 10-14 over a 10-year period, going from 77 in 2006 and to 652 in 2016.
Police over-charging, preferring arrest: report
Commissioner Mick Gooda and Margaret White highlighted the need to raise the age of criminal responsibility in their recommendations. (Supplied: NT News/Elise Derwin)
The commissioners also found that police were failing in their obligation to issue summonses for children or young people to appear in court, and instead making arrests.
The Youth Justice Act requires police to issue a summons unless they have reasonable grounds to believe a child or young person will not appear in court.
Police are also required to use custody, including arrest, as a last resort.
David Woodroffe highlighted the commission’s finding that NT police made 1,457 arrests of children and young people in 2015-16.
“That’s a staggering number, when we know, by law, that the police had other options,” he said.
“As we could all imagine and would know, the events of arrest, the taking of a child from their family and unfortunately in certain circumstances children being arrested at school, taken to a police station, taken to a watchhouse, charged, kept in custody, then released or in some instances not released, is very traumatic.”
There was also a finding that police were overcharging children and young people with charges that were eventually withdrawn, a practise that lawyers told the commission resulted in kids missing out on bail.
The commission recommended an independent review of charging practices over the last three years with respect to children and young people.
NT police have not commented on the detail of the royal commission’s report.
A statement from Acting Police Commissioner Grant Nicholls on Friday said police would methodically work through the report’s recommendations.
–Top Twitter To Follow: