Raising the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility is currently 10 years old in all Australian jurisdictions.
As the Minister with responsibility for youth justice for four years, I received regular updates on children and young people involved in the ACT youth justice system.
It was always distressing to receive advice about a young person under the age of 14 being sent to Bimberi Youth Justice Centre.
There are only a small number of young people who end up in this position. I got to know a lot about some of them through my briefings. Sometimes they come in on remand, they leave and you never hear about them again; sometimes they come back again and again.
I came to learn about some young people who would perpetrate problematic behaviours because they wanted to be sent to Bimberi. Because for them, it was the place they felt safest.
That is the heartbreaking reality of children’s engagement with the justice system.
But I have also seen young people for whom we have been able to put supports in place to address the underlying trauma, to work with them and to get them on a trajectory for a better life.
Labor Governments across the country are driving reform to increase the age, in response to a growing neurological and developmental evidence base that 10 years old is too low.
In the Northern Territory, legislation has been passed to increase the age to 12. Victoria has committed to increasing the age to 12 and then to 14.
This is possible because ACT Labor has led the way.
ACT Labor promised to reform the minimum age at the 2020 ACT Election. Since then, we have been working within Government to get the detail of this reform right.
This is about more than a headline. It is about building a better system to support children and young people who find themselves engaged in behaviour that is harmful to themselves and others.
I still hold the portfolio responsibilities for the family services that support children, young people and families outside of a youth justice context. In this role, I am one of three Ministers with joint responsibility for this reform.
The neurological and developmental evidence suggests that children and young people under 14 do not typically have the maturity and the capacity for abstract reasoning to appropriately understand their harmful behaviour or form criminal intent. Advocates ranging from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to the Law Council of Australia have called for the minimum age in all Australian jurisdictions to be raised to 14 as a minimum.
This week, the Government will introduce legislation to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility in two stages, first to 12 and then to 14 in 2025 (with some very limited exceptions), once the alternative service system has had time to mature.
I am proud to be part of a Labor Government that is implementing this nation-leading reform. We are responding to modern legal expertise and child development expertise to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable kids in our community.
While raising the minimum age to 14 is an important legal reform from both a principled and practical perspective, I believe that the biggest difference we can make to the lives of Canberrans, including the children and young people who are undertaking harmful behaviour, is through the development of a new systemic response outside of the justice system. One designed explicitly to respond to the needs of young people in crisis or at risk.
This was echoed by the Government-commissioned Review of the service system and implementation requirements for raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility in the Australian Capital Territory, which noted that the alternative service system is the vital element in this reform for improving the outcomes of children and young people who would otherwise come into contact with the justice system. This report set the foundation for our work.
The most crucial element of the alternative service response will be the development of a new Therapeutic Support Panel – as envisaged by the review – to respond to complex matters involving children and their families.
Beyond this, the Government is already investing in new services to support the children and young people who will no longer be subject to youth justice intervention.
We know we need to ensure the community has confidence in this reform.
And we know that a therapeutic, family and young person focused response to the harmful behaviour of children is what our Labor values demand.
Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility is an opportunity. But we can’t just change some numbers in the statute book. We need to do this right.
That is the difference Labor makes in Government.
Minister for Families and Community Services
Member for Kurrajong