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Calls to raise age criminal age of responsibility to 12 years old -

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NICK GRIMM: Human rights advocates are calling on the states' attorneys-general to raise the criminal age of responsibility from 10 to 12 years old.

As Children's Week gets underway, the group of legal and social services organisations say they want to highlight an issue on which, they say, Australia is lagging behind standards set by the international community.

The United Nations has ruled 12 should be the youngest age a child can be prosecuted for committing a crime. Research suggests any earlier and the child's brain isn't yet adequately developed.

Rachael Brown reports.

RACHAEL BROWN: Amnesty has joined 30 other legal, social and human rights groups in signing a letter to Australia's attorneys-general, calling for the criminal age to be raised from 10 to 12 years old.

JULIAN CLEARY: Kids getting into the system at that age: the statistics show that basically that's where they're going to end up for the rest of their lives.

RACHAEL BROWN: Amnesty International's Julian Cleary says such an early entry to the criminal justice system never bodes well.

JULIAN CLEARY: A friend of mine working at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency: one of her kids that she was representing, he was arrested and dragged before the court for sneaking into a movie. And I remember her talking about how the poor kid was terrified. We're talking about, you know, grade fours and fives.

RACHAEL BROWN: Mr Cleary says he's staggered Australian law even allows it.

JULIAN CLEARY: The United Nations experts on the rights of children: they've said that 12 should be the absolute minimum age. Australia is well below that. It's not widely known. It's something that people need to be more aware of. And I think if they were, there'd be outrage about it.

RACHAEL BROWN: Kate Colvin from another signatory, Jesuit Social Services, says between the years of 10 and 12 a child's brain undergoes considerable development.

KATE COLVIN: Particularly the pre-frontal cortex. So it's the part of the brain that's responsible for impulse control, planning and decision making, which is just not developed enough in 10-and 11-year-olds for them to be criminally responsible.

RACHAEL BROWN: She says the number of 10 to 14-year-olds proven guilty in the children's courts is under 5,000 a year, often for theft, property damage and minor offences.

Ms Colvin says police referral for assessment and assistance could do far more good than a stint in juvenile detention or a good behaviour bond.

KATE COLVIN: The problem is: if they are those vulnerable children who, you know, have a pattern of difficult behaviour, then the first time they come into court they might get a good behaviour bond or a dismissal. But the second time they come in, they'll get something more serious. So they're using up those first chances when they're 10 and 11.

RACHAEL BROWN: Julian Cleary agrees scaring children is the wrong way to encourage good behaviour.

He adds Indigenous children are hugely over-represented in criminal justice statistics.

JULIAN CLEARY: Most of the kids that young getting into trouble with the law come from really difficult, disadvantaged backgrounds. The notion that we should scare them into action, rather than look into what's causing them to get into trouble at that age, is sort of part of the problem, I feel.

NICK GRIMM: Amnesty International's Indigenous rights campaigner, Julian Cleary, ending that report by Rachael Brown