Victoria will raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, and to 14 within four years, after cabinet approved the plan on Monday afternoon.
Currently, children as young as 10 can be arrested, charged with a crime, held on remand and jailed in juvenile detention, but momentum has been growing to lift the minimum age of culpability in line with evidence about child development, international norms and human rights standards.
The decision agreed to by Victorian ministers comes ahead of a meeting of attorneys-general from across Australia on Friday to discuss a national approach to raising the age of criminal responsibility.
In February, Premier Daniel Andrews flagged that he was prepared to follow other jurisdictions, including the Northern Territory and ACT, and commit to raising the age, even if a national consensus was not reached.
But the decision to raise the age to just 12 has been slammed by Indigenous organisations, legal experts, medical bodies and social advocacy groups who want the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 14, with no exceptions.
Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes will tell her counterparts on Friday that Victoria will raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12, with a view to raising it to 14 in 2027, according to a senior government source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The senior source said many ministers wanted the age of criminal responsibility to be lifted to 14, in line with calls from leading experts.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) described the decision by the government to limit the raised age to 12 as “deeply concerning” and against medical advice
“Many children in the youth justice system have significant neurodevelopmental disabilities, and other physical and mental health needs, which are compounded by contact with the youth justice system and incarceration,” RACP President and Paediatrician Dr Jacqueline Small said.
“Children under 14 years may not have the level of maturity and cognitive function to be considered criminally responsible.
“Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years is critical to protecting the health and wellbeing of children and young people at risk of incarceration, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and children with developmental disabilities.”
Victoria already has strong legal protections for children charged with crimes, known as doli incapax, which describes the inability of children under the minimum age of criminal responsibility to form criminal intent. If a child is aged over 10 years but under 14, there is a common law presumption of doli incapax.
Shadow attorney-general Michael O’Brien said raising the age of criminal responsibility would mean 10 and 11-year-old children who knowingly commit crimes, including against other children, will not be held accountable for their actions.
“It is for Labor to explain how this will promote a safer or more just community,” O’Brien said. “At a time when Victoria’s child protection services are in crisis, this proposal is no substitute for tackling the root causes of youth crime.”
Jesuit Social Services chief executive Julie Edwards said Australia had long been out of step with human rights standards on youth justice.
“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,” Edwards said.
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