Media reports today suggest that the Victorian Government will raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12, instead of 14 which has long been advocated for by the community services and legal sectors as well as child welfare experts. If this is the case, it is a missed opportunity for the state to take a leading role in evidence-based approaches to support children and young people in trouble, according to Jesuit Social Services.

“By criminalising and incarcerating children as young as 10 years of age, Australia has long been out of step with human rights standards and medical science regarding child development. Extensive research into brain development consistently shows that children and young people lack the ability
to make comprehensive judgements, and we know that when children have contact with detention they are more likely to have further contact with the justice system throughout their lives,” says Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards.

“Australia has long lagged behind other jurisdictions in our protection of the rights of children. An analysis of 90 jurisdictions found that Australia’s current age of criminal responsibility of 10 was young in comparison to the most common and international median of 14 years old.

“Raising the age to 14 years, with no exceptions, is the most effective way we can steer children towards positive pathways, prevent crime from occurring in the first place and support children who do get into trouble to take accountability for their actions in the community.”

Ms Edwards says children in Victoria’s youth detention system are among the state’s most marginalised.

“According to the Youth Parole Board’s Annual Report, more than 70 per cent of children in detention are victims of abuse, trauma or neglect, more than 50 per cent have been subject to a current or previous child protection order and half have experienced family violence,” she says.

Jesuit Social Services has previously conducted research finding that children arrested before the age of 14 are three times more likely to re-offend as adults compared to children who are first arrested after they turn 14.

“This shows us that raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14, with no exceptions, is the right thing to do for children, their families and the broader community. Our focus must be to keep children in the community and support them to reach their potential.”

Jesuit Social Services’ 2019 discussion paper, Raising the age of criminal responsibility: There is a better way, outlines a range of practical ways in which children under 14 could be held accountable for their actions in ways that prevent further anti-social behaviour and better protect the entire community. This includes an increased emphasis on restorative justice approaches for children who engage in anti-social behaviour, supporting children to make amends for their behaviour and connect or reconnect with education, family and culture.

“Now is the time for the Victorian Government to show leadership and ensure that all children under 14 are treated in humane, age-appropriate ways. We will continue to call on the Victorian Government to raise the age to 14, with no exceptions, immediately.”

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