Often when the word young is mentioned, it is followed by free. When I imagine what it means to be free, I think of a life lived fully, opportunities in abundance and systems that work to develop the human person. So now, let us envision a 10-year-old, who has lived a life of trauma and abuse, unloved and abandoned by those closest to them. Imagine that our only solution to a crime they commit is to lock them up in a system that surrounds them with walls, inner and outer, detrimental to their livelihoods. Remember that 10-year-old who began their life in a Youth Justice Centre. Well, they are now an adult who has reoffended and finds themselves in an adult prison, locked up and unfree. Surely that is a human life we have failed.
The youngest offender I met at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre in Melbourne was as young as 12. I was utterly mortified and heartbroken. Our humanity has been eroded, but, where did we as a society go wrong? I remember being struck by how small they appeared; their stature told me that these were children. Why were children being locked up?
After five years of volunteering at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre and almost two years at the Melbourne Custody Centre, I find myself asking the same questions: why are our young people detained? What can we do for our young people to keep them out of the justice system? The answers to these questions have not changed – community and belonging. This is the agenda and the campaign of the ‘Raise the Age’ petition.
‘Raise the Age’ emphasises keeping kids in community, whilst campaigning strongly for a rise in the age of incarcerated children from 10 to 14. From 2018-2019, 600 children between the ages of 10-13 were locked up in the Australian Criminal System, 65% of those were young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Australia’s Attorneys General met to discuss this matter; unfortunately, they have postponed their discussion until 2021. How many more children will we lose to this system?
In 2017 I visited Homeboy Industries, an enterprise set up to help formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women in Downtown LA. I completed a two-week immersion program and realised that those who end up in the criminal system seek a place to belong, a community that will embrace them. After coming home, I was adamant that Australia needs to create communities for our youth; those neglected and cast aside. Research emphasises that young people join gangs to form communities, a group they can belong to. If this community is what they desire, we ought to provide them with an experience of embrace and hope.
To celebrate International Youth Day 2020, the United Nations has chosen the theme: Engagement for Global Action. The invitation here is that, we, as a society, need to ask our young people what they envisage for their lives? We ought to make systemic changes that can build futures for our young people, specifically those who are incarcerated at such a young age. We cannot remain indifferent while our society builds more walls that remove any speck of hope for a full life for all.