South Australia’s Guardian for Children and Young People has published youth detainee’s thoughts on raising the state’s minimum age of criminal responsibility, with one sharing a harrowing account of ‘bawling’ his eyes out after being incarcerated at just 10 years of age.

Guardian Shona Reid has collated stories from 27 young people detained at the Adelaide Youth Training Centre in Cavan as part of her submission to the state government on raising the age from 10 to 12. 

Ms Reid wants the state government to raise the age to 14, which would align with recommendations from the United Nations.

‘Bawling my eyes out’

As part of her submission, young detainees shared their experiences of the prison system.

“I was 10 [my first time in the cells] and I remember bawling my eyes out,” one detainee said.

“For some kids, being in here is better than being on the outside because they get fed regularly, they get shelter.”

Other older detainees said they were shocked when younger boys would arrive at the centre.

“We always talk amongst ourselves when we see a little kid come in like ‘what the heck, why is this kid in [the Centre]?'” one detainee shared.

“They harm themselves in here and that… get sad… crying everyday. Feel sh**,” another young person told Ms Reid.

“This is not a good place for a 10 year [old] to be,” another youth said.

Others suggested that younger boys being segregated at the centre highlighted the issue with detaining young children.

“I don’t even see why there should be a ‘young boys unit’ [in the Centre]. Like, if they literally have to have a unit for younger boys, then they shouldn’t be here at all,” one said.

“They’re obviously too young to mix with the older boys so, why are they even in here? Because the older boys know what they’re doing. But the young boys obviously don’t and that’s why there’s another unit, so they don’t get bashed.”

‘It did not teach them a lesson’: Guardian speaks out

In her submission Ms Reid said she would continue to “advocate that the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 14 years, urgently, and with no exceptions”.

The State’s Guardian for Children and Young People Shona Reid says imprisoning children is not solving the problem.(ABC News: Marco Catalano)

“My experience and advice from national and international experts have led me to believe that 14 is too young for any child to be in court or locked up in cells,” Ms Reid said. 

The Northern Territory was the first jurisdiction to raise its minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 in 2022.

The ACT has also legislated to increase its minimum age to 14, while Victoria and Tasmania have committed to raising the minimum age to 14. 

Ms Reid said that detention at such a young age did nothing to help the situation. 

“It did not teach them a lesson, it did not rehabilitate them — rather it made things worse. They said that they need people to be there for them when they make mistakes, they need safe places to go, they need safe people to be with,” she said.

One young detainee shared that they couldn’t comprehend anything that was discussed during their initial interactions with the court system.

“First few weeks I didn’t understand anything. I just said yes to whatever they told me,” the detainee told Ms Reid.

Some detainees said that some young people were less mature than their age or were easily influenced by others.

“I didn’t understand, didn’t think [my first offending] was wrong cause I was doing it with other people. Like, just didn’t think anything of it until I went to court,” the detainee said.

“It depends what life you grow up in. Like, if you grow up in a broken home or around criminals, like people who use drugs and that, then it’s just normal to you, you know? It’s just normal,” they said.

One young person told Ms Reid it was outrageous to be detaining a 10-year-old as it would “jeopardise their future.” (ABC News)

The SA Department of Human Services has been contacted for comment on the detainees’ experiences. 

SA Minister for Human Services Nat Cook said in addition to investing in a $21.7 million upgrade to the Adelaide Youth Training Centre, a key focus since the 2022 election had been improving the recruitment, training and retention of staff.

“This helps young people to have the best possible access to education, rehabilitation and therapeutic supports when they are in custody,” Ms Cook said.

State government considering submissions

A spokesperson from South Australia’s Attorney-General Kyam Maher said the state government did not have a settled policy position.

“The government recently issued and consulted on a discussion paper setting out a range of proposals including raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years of age,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Kyam Maher said submissions were being considered. (ABC News: Carl Saville)

“The model consulted on proposed exemptions so that children between 10 and 12 years of age could still be held responsible for serious crimes.”

Ms Reid said she was seriously concerned about the model put forward by the government.

“The model… is, quite frankly, bizarre. It still lets police lock children in cells, it still funnels children into court processes and it still allows those courts to send children to detention. So, I have to ask, what’s in it for the kids? And how will this make our community safer?” Ms Reid said.

The Attorney-General’s spokesperson said the department received a large volume of submissions on the proposal and was considering them carefully – and “any action taken will first and foremost be concerned with the safety of the community”.