Australia’s top legal officers have been accused of “failure” by not raising the age of criminal responsibility.

A coalition called ‘Change the Record’ has been formed, bringing together welfare, youth and legal advocates, including Anglicare and Acoss, to argue for youth justice reforms. 

The group says Australia’s attorneys general have “failed” to take action, “despite being handed an expert report overwhelmingly recommending that all states and territories and the federal government change laws to keep children out of prison.”

A total of 499 children aged under 13 were sent to jail in 2020 alone - 65 per cent of whom were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children - all of which would have avoided such a fate if the age of responsibility had been changed. 

In 2018, the council of attorneys general (now known as MAG - the Meeting of Attorneys-General) launched an inquiry into potential reforms. 

It received almost 100 submissions from various organisations, the majority of which reportedly supported raising the age to 14.

While just five of the submissions were deemed confidential, nothing of the subsequent report has been released publicly.

However, a copy of a draft report leaked to media, and allegedly recommended that the age of criminal responsibility be raised to 14 years old, with exceptions for serious crimes.

“Every day that attorneys general refuse to act, they are condemning a generation of our children to a lifetime behind bars. Ten-year-old children who get trapped in the criminal justice system don’t come out,” says co-chair of Change the Record, Cheryl Axelby.

“One year ago, every state and territory was given the chance to unite to close the gap and change the cruel laws that lock children as young as 10 years old away behind bars. 

“They failed to take action then, we are calling on them to take action now to raise the age of criminal responsibility and invest in the community programs and family services that will keep our children safe and healthy and strong.”

Change the Record wants the next Meeting of Attorneys-General (MAG) to make public any work it has done to identify “adequate processes and services for children who exhibit offending behaviour”.

This would include any details of possible alternatives to detention, which MAG has previously claimed as a reason for postponing its decisions.

“When the then council of attorneys-general met 12 months ago, it outlined the need for further work to occur ‘regarding the need for adequate processes and services for children who exhibit offending behaviour’,” the gorup says.

“What specific work has been undertaken, and by whom, in the past 12 months to identify adequate processes and services for children who exhibit offending behaviour?” it asked.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash’s spokesperson says states and territories must decide on the issue.

“Ultimately, it will be a decision for each jurisdiction whether to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility,” the spokesperson said. 

“This is primarily an issue for states and territories, as the overwhelming majority of offences committed by children are state and territory, not Commonwealth, offences.

“The Australian Government continues to engage with jurisdictions to ensure treatment of young people in detention meets all expectations for the safety and protection of children under government care.”