Let’s go with the science – raise the age of criminal responsibility and invest in rehabilitative and therapeutic responses for young people now

May 02, 2023 |

Last week, the Victorian Government announced it would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years in 2024, and to 14 years by 2027 with exceptions for some offences. Although progress has been made, it is important to note this falls short the international standard and medical advice 

As Victoria’s peak body for Community Legal Centres, we view the establishment of a humane and rational age of criminal responsibility as an urgent and critical priority.   

The 4,000 staff and volunteers at Victorian Community Legal Centres advocate for justice, equality and the fair treatment of all Victorians. We also conduct research into the policies that work to keep people safe, and those which serve to exacerbate existing inequalities and reinforce disruptive behaviours. Determining the age of criminal responsibility traverses both these key areas of our work, comprising questions of both fairness and sound public policy.  

The impact on children when they come into contact with the criminal legal system – particularly those who are incarcerated – as well as their families, and society is profound. What’s more, in maintaining this young age of criminal responsibility, we lower the bar for upholding human rights and logical lawmaking.  

Criminalising children does not protect society, but instead perpetuates cycles of crime, violence and poverty. Widely researched and accepted evidence indicates the harmful and counter-productive nature of criminalising children. It shows that the earlier a child interacts with the criminal legal system, the more likely they are to reoffend in later life. Further, child offenders who receive therapeutic supports and rehabilitation services are significantly more likely to become productive and valued members of society than those who experience criminal repercussions and imprisonment. 

For any debate about raising the age of criminal responsibility to be meaningful, it must recognise the racial bias that underscores the criminalisation of children. Aboriginal children are jailed at a rate of 20 times more than non-Aboriginal children, and make up over half of all children in Australian jails. 

The Victorian Government has rightly acknowledged that reform is needed, and that the time for change is now. We know that our governments have the ability to make changes and increase social services quickly when they need too, and it is essential that the Victorian Government does everything in its power to put in place any transition services needed to make this happen as quickly as possible.  Each day that we choose to criminalise a young person rather than invest in supporting them, we fall short of providing the adequate protection that those children and society are entitled to. Can we wait four years to shift our investment from prisons to therapeutic, restorative, rehabilitative and community-based responses?  

In Australia, a person will not be held criminally responsible if they meet certain criteria, including if they lack capacity to understand that the act was a crime. And developmental science – including from the Australian Medical Association – tells us that the age at which a child’s brain has full capacity to comprehend actions and consequences and to determine wrongdoing is 14.  Let’s legislate in line with the science. 

The campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 has been spearheaded by many Aboriginal Legal Services and other Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, Community Legal Centres and human rights organisations, including many of our member organisations, and it has been inspiring to watch the movement grow.  

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) has compiled compelling data that reveals the undeniable racial bias that puts many Aboriginal children behind bars. The work VALS has done in this space has played a huge part in creating the narrative that has moved so many of us to act. 

YouthLaw and WEstJustice, the co-conveners of the Smart Justice for Young People coalition, have been instrumental in raising awareness of the debate and presenting powerful, evidence-based arguments for change.  

Human Rights Law Centre was a founding member of the national #RaisetheAge campaign, which has collectively written thousands of letters and emails, advised politicians, held events and rallies and built powerful and diverse cross-sector alliances to drive change. The #RaiseTheAge campaign has galvanised organisations alongside tens of thousands of individuals to make sure our politicians know we want to live in a society that properly considers child wellbeing in the way we respond to public safety issues. 

Other states are acting too, with the ACT and NT Governments already committed to raising the age, and other states indicating that they will follow suit. This is a direct result of the pressure applied by grassroots organisations, and goes to show how impactful we – as a sector, and as individuals – can be. Let’s not give up now.  

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