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Intervening early to prevent criminalisation of children

21 November 2022 at 4:02 pm
Deb Tsorbaris
Why is raising the age of criminal responsibility still a contentious topic? 

Deb Tsorbaris | 21 November 2022 at 4:02 pm


Intervening early to prevent criminalisation of children
21 November 2022 at 4:02 pm

Why is raising the age of criminal responsibility still a contentious topic? 

The age of criminal responsibility has resurfaced as an issue in national and state and territory media. There is justifiable outcry about the fact that in Australia children as young as 10 years old can be incarcerated, a position which is out of step with much of the rest of the world. But raising the age of criminal responsibility remains a contentious decision. 

On the one hand there is a large and growing body of evidence pointing to the need for a higher age of criminal responsibility that better reflects the developmental ages and stages of children and is consistent with human rights obligations. On the other hand it is recognised that there can be political ramifications for governments that appear to be ‘soft’ on crime, regardless of the age of the offender.

As the peak body for children and families in Victoria, the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare has consistently called on Australian governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years in line with many other countries globally.

Our reasons are based on evidence. We know that criminalising young children is inconsistent with the evidence on brain development, that incarceration at an early age is unlikely to change a child’s trajectory, that criminalising young children is unfairly punishing them for adverse life experiences beyond their control – such as exposure to family violence, poverty, discrimination, mental illness, substance use, neglect and abuse – and that highly vulnerable children, including Aboriginal children, are overrepresented in the youth justice system. 

Recent media imagery and reporting in relation to children in youth detention, and the trauma they have experienced or continue to experience, makes for harrowing viewing and reading. For change to occur, we need our political leaders to use the best available evidence to inform their decision-making. We also need them to invest in proven early intervention programs and approaches.

In our 2021 submission to the Council of Attorneys General, as part of the Age of Criminal Responsibility Working Group review, the centre made a number of suggestions to support the case for raising the age of criminal responsibility in all Australia jurisdictions. 

We argued for more evidence-based diversionary programs instituted at the earliest signs of engagement in criminal activities by a child, and drew attention to the successful evidence-based models being implemented in Victoria which aim to reduce offending by young people through support delivered in the home. 

We also argued for the expansion of Victoria’s Navigator program to primary school children showing early signs of disengagement from school, given the pivotal role school and education can play as protective factors in the lives of highly vulnerable children.

Currently in Australia, there is no nationally consistent policy, framework or set of guidelines for when a child might be considered to be legally responsible for their behaviour. We want to see federal and state and territory governments working together to develop a more coordinated approach, informed by the best available evidence, to increase the age at which children can be held legally responsible for their actions in Australia.

We want to see the state government investing more in holistic, comprehensive supports for children and families experiencing complex challenges, provision of proven programs that address risk factors early, and more interconnected service systems to keep children out of the child protection and criminal justice systems. Families also need adequate levels of income support – a federal government responsibility – to lift them out of poverty and enable children to thrive. 

The current minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia, at 10 years of age, harms children and disproportionately affects specific cohorts of children. It is discriminatory and out of step with human rights standards and the medical science on child brain development. 

Raising the age of criminal responsibility on its own is not enough however. Our advocacy efforts around raising the age of criminal responsibility must also highlight the protective factors that need to be in place to support children at risk of engaging in unlawful behaviours.

Deb Tsorbaris  |  @ProBonoNews

Deb Tsorbaris is the CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, the peak body for child and family services in Victoria.


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