Youth Justice Bill promises critical reforms, but should be strengthened

June 20, 2024 |

The Victorian Government’s Youth Justice Bill 2024 introduced into parliament on Tuesday offers an opportunity to create systemic changes to children currently funnelled into criminal law systems and prisons. 

We commend the Victorian Government for taking action in response to years of advocacy from Smart Justice for Young People, Victorian Community Legal Centres and Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service in tabling this important reform, but back sector calls for further changes to ensure the Bill implements all Victorian Government commitments for youth justice reform. 

We support new measures to increase diversion from the criminal legal system through the use of warnings, cautions and diversion, instead of formal charges. Children who come into contact with police, courts and prisons have overwhelmingly experienced childhood trauma, abuse and disadvantage, all of which impact a child’s development and contribute to their pathway into the criminal legal system. 

The Bill raises the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years old, which is an important step forward. However, we remain consistent in our ask for the Victorian Government to urgently raise the age to 14 – which should be achieved in this Bill. 

The electronic monitoring trial proposed in the Bill has been widely criticised, including by Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and the Victorian community legal sector, and should be removed from the Bill. There is limited evidence to support electronic monitoring of children as an effective way of reducing crime. Electronic monitoring will lead to young people being stigmatised and takes the focus away from their therapeutic care and rehabilitation to surveillance and punishment, which fuels the types of age-based discrimination and racial profiling that compounds trauma. 

The Victorian Government has committed to reforming youth bail laws, but these changes are not included in the Bill before parliament. There is an urgent need to reduce the number of children locked in prison cells awaiting trial without charge who have been denied access to bail. Over 80 per cent of school aged children in Victorian prisons have not been convicted or sentenced of any crime, and the numbers of Aboriginal children languishing in prison cells waiting for their court date is disproportionately high. 

Louisa Gibbs, CEO at the Federation of Community Legal Centres said: 

“The changes to youth diversion will help children steer clear of the criminal legal system in the future. We know that children who live at home and stay in school - with the therapeutic supports they need to overcome the childhood trauma and abuse they’ve experienced - are less likely to get in trouble with the law again. 

“Children do their best when they can go to school, play with friends and sleep in their own bed each night. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 is a critical first step, but 13- and 14-year-olds should be supported through community-based programs and education – not hauled before courts and locked in prison cells away from their families and friends. 

“The Victorian Government should reform the state’s bail laws, rather than introducing an electronic monitoring trial. For the children sleeping in prison cells for weeks and months on end awaiting trial, and the families and communities who care about them, we urge the government to honour its previous commitments and reform bail laws as part of the Youth Justice Bill before parliament.” 

For more information, please contact Katie Wand at [email protected]. 

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