OPINION

Suffer the little children in detention

BETTER WAY: The alternative is dealing with kids' problems through better education and welfare services. Picture: Shutterstock
BETTER WAY: The alternative is dealing with kids' problems through better education and welfare services. Picture: Shutterstock

Earlier this year Dujuan Hoosan, a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy from Alice Springs, told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva: "I want adults to stop putting 10-year-old kids in jail." Good for him, but surely that's unnecessary? Who locks up children?

Well, us, actually. The age of criminal responsibility in Australia is 10. Ginger Meggs, Wimpy Kid, Famous Five: in Australia, they're all old enough to get locked up.

Does this seem right to you? To be fair (and I have to say it's an effort) Australia's not the worst.

Some American states go down to six, a point where you'd have to fit out your prisons with slippery-slides and monkey bars. Most Scandinavian states, though, are at 15, and Brazil is at 18.

The Human Rights Council, by the way, agreed with Dujuan and asked Australia to raise its standards, adding its voice to the voices of 48 Australian not-for-profits including the AMA, Save the Children and the Law Society of NSW.

Dammit, Australia's attorneys-general - not generally regarded as airy-fairy touchy-feely bleeding hearts - got together this year on a draft report recommending that state governments raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 (they may have been bribed by the campaign contributions of Big Schoolbag, but I doubt it).

All these groups say that imprisoning children costs the earth, increases their likelihood of returning to jail, and stunts their development severely.

Good arguments, but frankly they had me at "10 years old". Have you ever met a 10-year-old? Would you trust their judgement on anything?

For adolescents, oppositional defiant disorder is part of the position statement.

Still, at the end of all those councils and attorneys-general and not-for-profits, Australia said no, why would we want to change?

Once you get into the way of keeping children in detention, it's a hard habit to break, and the youngest convict on the First Fleet was 13. We don't want to rush into anything.

The police say they need options, and the Murdoch press says that we'll all be murdered in our beds, and governments are very afraid that Murdoch and the police will accuse them of being soft on crime.

If they were getting a lot of opposition from enraged parents that would probably balance it out, but let's face it, the only reason why this hasn't been fixed long before now is that middle-class children seldom go to jail and private school children never do.

No, I tell a lie; another reason is racism. A staggering 60 per cent of under-14 prisoners are Indigenous. Which rather gives the game away, I think.

What's more likely - that the worst of the worst are 20 times more prevalent among First Nations, or that the system cares 20 times less what happens to them? We're finding the most disadvantaged kids in Australia and punching them down.

The alternative to imprisonment isn't patting the kids on the back and giving them a participation trophy, it's dealing with their problems in other ways that don't see the harshness of the punishment as the entire point.

Put the money into education and child welfare services - out-of-home care, kinship care, school-based interventions and community health programs. It'd also be a good idea to "close the gap" and give Indigenous people an equal chance, but one of the things about being a kid is that you don't like waiting, and that could take, oh, months. Change the law now.

There are about 600 Australian under 14-year-olds in jail at any time. The Children's Research Institute says that adolescents who've been sent to prison die at a rate five to 41 times higher than their peers from drug overdoses, suicide, injury or violence, so we'll be writing off a pretty high proportion of them - 30? Fifty?

There are a number of differences between me and Jesus Christ, one of which is that the defamation laws he operated under in ancient Palestine were less prescriptive than they are in Australia today. I might otherwise be tempted to quote him: "But whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

If you don't want your personalised millstone slotted in down there next to 200 years of ministers for justice, consider donating to Save the Children or Change the Record, who are making the running on this issue.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

This story Suffer the little children in detention first appeared on The Canberra Times.