It is hard to believe that in 2022, we still lock-up children, but the reality is that 10 to 13 year-olds can be arrested, strip-searched, and imprisoned in Queensland.

Michael Berkman, State Member for Maiwar, the Queensland Council of Social Services (QCOSS), Amnesty International and a range of other community services, have been campaigning for the Queensland government to raise the age to fourteen.

The Raise the Age Campaign, argues that while prison harms all children, the medical evidence and internationally accepted standards make it clear that fourteen is the bare minimum. They say governments must raise the age to protect our children’s rights and health.

Last week, State Parliament voted on Mr Berkman’s Bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years and transfer 10–13-year-olds out of prisons and watch houses. The Bill was voted down.

Mr Berkman said the decision to vote down the Bill contradicts UN recommendations, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and medical evidence. He said over three hundred submitters supported the Bill, including the Queensland Human Rights Commission, Office of the Public Guardian, Queensland Council of Social Services, Change the Record and Amnesty International.

“A minimum age of 12, which leaves primary school aged children in prison, is inconsistent with our international human rights obligations and medical evidence,” Mr Berkman told the Westender.

He said the system is failing first nations children in particular.

On average, 84% of children aged 10-13 in a Queensland detention centre on any given day are Indigenous. These kids make up about 7% of the population outside of prison, and 84% inside. Overall, First Nations kids are twenty-nine times more likely to be locked up in Queensland,” Mr Berkman said in his introductory speech.

This week, QCOSS presented a petition to Queensland’s Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman containing 26,853 signatures, calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14 years old.

“It is clear there is widespread community support for this. Most people don’t think that children as young as ten belong in the criminal justice system,” QCOSS CEO, said.

Crimes children commit

Asked if the resistance of our lawmakers to raising the age of criminal responsibility relates to the nature of crimes committed, Mr Berkman said that those who argue that raising the age will endanger our community fail to recognise that children under fourteen account for a small proportion of crimes. He said the vast majority of offences they commit are not serious.

“Among children aged 10-14, around 55% of offences are theft, burglary and property-related crimes, while just over 20% are acts intended to cause injury.”

Mr Berkman said the nature of their crimes correlates with the developmental stage of the children.

Research suggests that children and young people tend to commit offences that are attention-seeking, episodic, unplanned, and opportunistic. The medical evidence helps explain this.”

Youth crime is related to poverty

What we do know, Mr Berkman said, is that inequality and poverty can lead to criminal behaviour.

“Factors that can lead a child or young person into the criminal legal system are largely the same as those that can lead them into child protection – namely, family dysfunction, abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, and socio-economic disadvantage.”

“Early contact with police and detention compounds existing social inequalities and contributes to the overrepresentation of First Nations children and adults in the criminal system.”

Mr Berkman said a punitive response to young offender’s behaviour does not address these underlying factors and fails to prevent reoffending, and may cause further harm.

Alternatives to detention

QCOSS, Mr Berkman, and a range of service organisations argue that there is under funding of services designed to keep children out of prison.

“I think everyone would agree, including people who don’t support raising the age of responsibility, that there has been under funding of community organisations, services and support for children and families and communities where there is a risk of children participating in criminal behaviour,” QCOSS CEO, Aimee McVeigh said.

“What we are really hoping for at this stage is a really big investment in a service system and therapeutic response to children under the age of 14 who are engaging in criminal behaviour.”

Ms McVeigh said there is a trend across the country to strengthen the community approach. She is hopeful that the election of the new federal government will bring a more collaborative approach to working across jurisdictions.

“What we really need to focus on is ensuring that there is an alternative response for these children, so that police aren’t the only respondents. We need services and supports for children and families so that if they are picked up by police, there is a place that they can be taken to and diverted out of the system. Currently, there are not sufficient resources to ensure that support is there. The first priority is to make sure that these children regardless of what the law says have an alternative response, not a criminal justice response,” Ms McVeigh said.

Alongside his Bill, Mr Berkman proposed a “trauma-informed, child-centred and place-based alternative model to prevent and address problematic behaviour by children under 14, with an emphasis on First Nations-led programs to provide culturally appropriate responses.”

“There are some fantastic services already operating across Queensland, from the TERN program in Townsville to the Cooee Indigenous Family and Community Education Centre in Cleveland, the Healing Foundation in South Brisbane or Youth Off the Streets in Logan. 

“Experts like Dr Terry Hutchinson also suggest free services such as school meals, public transport and sport can keep kids in school and away from offending. But the Government under funds these services while wasting millions building, expanding, and running youth prisons.”

Roadblocks to reform

The question for the Government is why it is not yet willing to support a change to the law, given the evidence and the widespread support for reform.

“Youth crime is a complex issue, and community safety is key,” the Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman told the Westender in a statement.

“In Bob Atkinson’s review into youth justice[1], he recommended States and Territories take a national approach to raising the age to 12 years. Having a national agreement from all States and Territories would also mean it would be less likely for laws to be wound back following a change of government.

“All States and the Commonwealth have agreed to develop a proposal to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12 years.”

Ms Fentiman said significant work is needed before this is implemented.

Proceeding to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility without the necessary framework for responding to children who exhibit harmful behaviour is irresponsible,” she said in her statement.

“National discussions should be allowed to take their course to facilitate consistency and fairness between jurisdictions.

“These discussions will also ensure that any reform in this area is done with considerations of the welfare of children and community safety at the forefront.”

However, Mr Berkman said the State Government is hiding behind the national COAG process.

“…  all the Working Group has achieved in almost four years since it was established is burying a report that recommended all governments raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years, and most recently a non-committal statement of support for “developing a proposal” to raise the age to twelve.”

“The argument that we must wait for a nationally consistent approach doesn’t stand up. The ACT[2] is moving to raise the age to fourteen, and experts from the Queensland Law Society explicitly told the hearings on this Bill that it would be better for Queensland to lead this reform than wait for other states. 

A meeting of Attorneys-General last Friday agreed to continue its review of the minimum age of criminal responsibility, paying particular attention to eliminating the overrepresentation of First Nations children in the criminal justice system.

“Participants noted that the ACT and Northern Territory have committed to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and states have supported the development of proposals to raise the age, having regard to any carve outs, timing and discussion of implementation requirements.” [3]


[1] Report on Youth Justice from Special Advisor, Bob Atkinson, to Minister Farmer,

[2] “ACT leads the way with roadmap to Raise the Age of criminal responsibility”

[3] Meeting of Attorneys-General (MAG) Communiqué – August 2022

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