Keenan Mundine was 14 when he first went to jail for breaking into a car and stealing a laptop.
"I was placed in a dorm with 30 other boys and there were nine- and 10-year-old boys in there that had been there for months," the 34-year-old told AAP.
"Some of them couldn't even read or write. None of them got visits from their parents."
The Wakka Wakka and Birpai man grew up on The Block in Sydney's Redfern, an experience he describes as "f***ing horrible".
"There were no doors, windows smashed, rats and cockroaches everywhere, abandoned buildings, people shooting up in my backyard while I'm playing on my trampoline, people overdosing, people getting stabbed," Mr Mundine said.
"It was all normal to me."
Mr Mundine's parents died by the time he was seven and he was separated from his siblings.
His arrest at 14 marked the beginning of years-long involvement with the youth justice system.
"I was homeless, I had no job, I had no parents, I had no one responsible for me and they just opened the gate after me serving my time and took me back out to the wolves," Mr Mundine said.
"All I knew was what community taught me to do and that was take things that didn't belong to me because I needed them."
Mr Mundine turned his life around and founded Aboriginal community-led charity Deadly Connections with his wife Carly.
He has been advocating for years to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14, in line with most international jurisdictions.
Across Australia, children as young as 10 can be arrested by police, remanded in custody, convicted by the courts and jailed.
It is estimated almost 600 children aged between 10 and 13 were in custody last financial year. More than 60 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of the Aboriginal-led justice coalition Change the Record, said discriminatory laws and policing is to blame for the over-representation of Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system
"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are more likely to be stopped by police, arrested and charged instead of cautioned, and locked up on remand instead of being released on bail," she told AAP.
The earlier a child is driven into the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to stay in it, she added.
"When we lock up children as young as 10, it's not just a prison sentence, it's a life sentence."
Rodney Dillon, a Palawa elder from Tasmania and Indigenous rights advisor for Amnesty International, agrees.
"Living in that system doesn't address the issues that the kids have got. All it does is make the kids worse," he said.
Mr Dillion said children under 14 who end up in custody are more likely to skip school, have an undiagnosed disability, suffer from underlying trauma and come from a poor family.
"We know that poverty, poor housing and the criminal justice system all live together. Why don't we address all three issues?" Mr Dillon said.
"All we do, because it's simple, is lock kids up."
Mick Creati, paediatrician and senior fellow at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said children under 14 are yet to develop the ability to control impulses or foresee the consequences of their actions.
"We are criminalising children as young as 10 for behaviours that are explained by their immature brain development, disability, mental illness and/or trauma," Dr Creati said.
Children under 14 brought before court are presumed to be 'doli incapax', meaning they don't have the capacity to commit crime because they lack a guilty mind. But young people can spend months in remand during the legal argument.
In January, more than 30 United Nations member states, including Canada, France and Germany, called on Australia to raise the age.
Australia's Council of Attorneys-General agreed to consider raising the age to 14, and has been examining alternatives to imprisonment.
Last year ACT became the first jurisdiction to commit to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 and called on other states and territories to follow.
Pressure is mounting in Victoria, where a national-first inquiry into the historic and ongoing injustices committed against Indigenous people has been established and a number of discriminatory laws have been abolished.
The Greens have introduced a bill to the upper house to raise the age but both major parties said they wouldn't support it.
"Tackling the root causes of youth offending is our first priority," a Victorian government spokesperson told AAP, pointing to a youth justice plan aiming to provide better outcomes for young people.
On Wednesday, the attorneys-general are set to meet for the first time this year, although the federal government's expected ministerial reshuffle may cause a delay and it's unclear if raising the age will be on the agenda.
For Michael Kennedy, a former NSW Police detective who works at the University of Western Sydney, raising the age alone is not enough.
"There is no use lifting the age of criminal responsibility to 14 if nothing is going to be done about unemployment, drug and alcohol problems, sexual assault, domestic violence," he said.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the average daily number of young people in custody in the 2019/20 financial year was the lowest since 2002.
Mr Mundine said the cost of inaction was grave.
"The ripple effect of not raising the age of criminal responsibility is going to be another 50 years of undoing trauma," he said.
"I try to remain positive and optimistic and hopeful. Because I've proved them wrong in terms of how they measured me ... and where I'd end up."
THE AGE OF CRIMINAL RESPONSIBILITY
* Australia - 10
* Canada, the Netherlands, Scotland - 12
* Germany, Italy, Spain - 14
* Denmark, Greece, Norway, Sweden - 15
* Portugal - 16
* Brazil, Uruguay - 18
(Source: Save the Children)
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© AAP 2021