Intervene early to prevent the criminalization of children


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

The age of criminal responsibility has resurfaced as an issue in national and state/territory media. There is a justified outcry that in Australia children as young as 10 can be incarcerated, a stance that is out of step with much of the rest of the world. But raising the age of criminal responsibility remains a controversial decision.

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

As the leading agency for children and families in Victoria, the Center of Excellence for Child and Family Welfare has consistently called on Australian governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 , in line with many other countries in the world.

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

Recent media images and reports related to children in juvenile detention, and the trauma they have experienced or continue to experience, makes it heartbreaking to watch and read. For change to happen, 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 Board of Attorneys General, as part of the Working Group’s review of the age of criminal responsibility, the center made a number of suggestions to support the case for an increase of the age of criminal responsibility in all Australian jurisdictions.

We advocated for more evidence-based diversion programs instituted at the first signs of a child’s involvement in criminal activity, and drew attention to the proven evidence-based models implemented at Victoria which aim to reduce juvenile delinquency through support provided in the home.

We have also advocated for the extension of the Victoria’s Navigator program to primary school children showing early signs of school disengagement, given the central role that school and education can play as protective factors in children’s lives. very vulnerable.

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

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

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

Raising the age of criminal responsibility is not enough on its own, 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 illegal behavior.


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