Youth push for solutions to raise the age of criminal responsibility

By Jacob Gamble.

Victoria’s youth want to see the age of criminal responsibility raised from 10 to 14, with a bill passing Victorian Youth Parliament last Monday that sets out to do just that. 

The bill was developed by six young people from the Skyline Foundation, an organisation providing educational support to students at risk of leaving the school system early. The bill passed the Legislative Assembly of the YMCA parliament program, adding itself to the growing calls for states to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years in line with UN recommendations. 

Emily Van, 18, from the Skyline Foundation highlighted the ineffectiveness of punitive measures during the debate.

“It is evident that the juvenile detention system has not been beneficial to the needs of these children and are not addressing underlying matters considering the structural, social, political, environmental and historical issues that are present,” she said.

The bill proposes the establishment of a Victorian Youth Justice and Advocacy Body (VYJAB). The body would have discretion to implement innovative rehabilitation measures and assign social workers and psychologists to young offenders.  

Shehelah Ousman, 20, Skyline Foundation participant and Youth Premier, said it was important to provide young offenders with alternative education to equip them with skills to reintegrate into society.

“We’re looking to change the age of criminal responsibility and raise it but also ensure people who are under the age of 14 have avenues to engage with the education system in a way that feels empowering,” she said.

This reflects a growing agreement among lawyers, human rights groups, and youth advocacy organisations, with many pointing out the disproportionate representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in prison.

The Sentencing Council of Victoria reported that in 2019-2020 the rate of detention for Indigenous young people aged 10 to 17 was approximately eight times the rate of their non-Indigenous peers.

Change the Record is an Aboriginal led organisation seeking to end incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Sophie Trevitt is the executive officer and says children under 14 do not have the ability to possess criminal intent.

“There is absolute consensus amongst doctors, lawyers, experts in child psychology and child behaviour that children under the age of 14 don’t have the cognitive capacity, so their brains have not developed sufficiently for them to perform criminal intent,” she said.

“Instead of the police being the people you call, we need to look at who are all the other adults that could be supporting this young person but haven’t. 

“Where are the teachers? Where is the department of education? Where is the housing? Where are the GPs?”

Jesuit Social Services have also been advocating to raise the age and run programs to help young offenders access housing, education, and employment. Julie Edwards is the chief executive officer and says imprisonment “has a profoundly negative impact on younger lower risk people”. 

“More than three quarters of children aged 10 to 16 who exited detention in Victoria in 2017-18 returned to sentenced supervision within a year,” she said. 

“Imprisonment actually increases the likelihood of a young person reoffending, particularly compared to community-based restorative justice programs.”

Currently, the Australian Capital Territory are the only state to commit to raising the age, with no commitments made yet from the Victorian government. 

Skyline Foundation’s ‘Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility’ Bill has been presented to the Victorian Minister for Youth, Ros Spence for consideration by the Victorian Government.

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