The ACT Government has broken ranks to become the first jurisdiction to endorse raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years of age.
- The ACT Government has become the first to support raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14
- National efforts at introducing the change stalled at a recent meeting of attorneys-general
- ACT Labor said it would begin work on the reform after the election, if it wins
Children as young as 10 can currently be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to juvenile detention in the ACT and across Australia.
A national push to raise the age stalled after state, territory and federal attorneys-general determined more work needed to be done to find alternatives to dealing with young offenders.
A Council of Attorneys-General report into the issue is due next year, and ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay had previously said the capital would remain in line with national progress on reform.
But yesterday, the Legislative Assembly voted in favour of a motion showing in-principle support for the move, with Labor committing to changing the law if it wins October’s election.
More than 20 community sector organisations in Canberra, including social justice groups and the Greens, urged the Government to move on the issue and change its position.
Only one child under the age of 14 has been sentenced to detention in the 11 years to 2019, and four under 12 were held on remand at the Bimberi Youth Justice Centre.
ACT Minister for Children, Youth and Families and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Rachel Stephen-Smith, said the age of 10 was “too young” for a child to be held criminally responsible.
“We recognise how strong the evidence is in terms of a minimum age of criminal responsibility of 10 years old being too young,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
Ms Stephen-Smith said the ACT Government had approved the use of proceeds of crime to fund an analysis of what would need to be done to successfully raise the age.
She said the move was more than “just the stroke of a pen”.
“[We need] to ensure that they are rehabilitated, that they understand the consequences of their actions, and that they are provided with therapeutic, wrap around support to integrate into the community and to engage in positive behaviours so that they don’t end up just ending up in the justice system at an older age,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
Doubts over consensus led to ‘going it alone’
The ACT Government has expressed its desire for national consensus on the issue, but Labor yesterday said it was prepared to go its own way if that could not be done.
“If we could get to a national consensus within what we consider to be a reasonable timeline, then that is what we will pursue. If we get to a point where it is not looking like there is a national consensus, a national agreement, we will then move,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
“We’re five weeks out from the beginning of pre-poll [voting], so we’re just over eight weeks out from the election.
“Obviously nothing is going to happen between now and then, but a re-elected Labor Government will progress this work with the community sector, with our community partners, to make sure that we understand the supports that are going to be needed for young people.”
ACT Law Society president Chris Donahue said Labor’s motion in the Assembly yesterday indicated its commitment outside of a national consensus.
“Part of the motion says there’s a desirability of national consensus on the minimum age but this does not prevent the jurisdiction from making an independent decision to raise the age,” Mr Donahue said.
The Canberra Liberals voted against the motion yesterday, but said they were open to raising the age of criminal responsibility in the future.
“There needs to be careful thought before we do enact this, it is clear this is a very complex area of law,” they said.
ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury, who moved the motion to raise the age of criminal responsibility, said he preferred consensus but the issue could no longer wait.
“It is clear … that this issue has slowed to what I consider a glacial pace,” Mr Rattenbury said.
“We believe with the right supports in place and a well-resourced youth sector, we can provide better alternatives.”