Should we be tougher on youth crime?

Opinion 12 July 2023

This opinion piece was originally published in the Herald Sun on Wednesday 12 July 2023.

Last week this newspaper reported data from the Crime Statistics Agency showing an increase in offences against the person committed by 10–13-year-olds. As Victoria prepares to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 late next year, and to 14 in four years’ time, such statistics have usually been followed by calls for a ‘tough-on-crime approach’ to curbing offending.

As a welcome change, the reporting highlighted the need to address factors fuelling offending amongst this youngest group, especially the influence of witnessing or being a direct victim of family violence, noting that many offenders have been removed into state care for those reasons.

At the heart of that change must be raising the age of criminal responsibility not just to 12 by next year, but to 14 as soon as possible, rather than pushing that necessary move four years down the track.

The reasons are many.

Children under 14 have been shown not to have the mental development to distinguish right from wrong. This is amplified for children who encounter the youth justice system, many of whom have experienced childhood trauma.

There is no more certain way to stigmatise and entrench children and young people in the criminal justice system than to expose them to other offenders. Incarceration at such a developmentally critical age is not only profoundly damaging, but it also violates international human rights standards, including those adopted by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Evidence shows unequivocally that the way to reduce youth crime is to place the wellbeing and rights of children at the heart of our justice policies. When children and young people are healthy and given opportunities to flourish, be inspired and learn, they are far less likely to offend. In our work at the Commission for Children and Young People, we know involving children and young people in decision-making empowers them and gives them a sense of control over their lives.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility involves replacing punitive justice approaches with well-resourced mandated therapeutic responses. This allows children to understand their own offending while adults address the underlying causes. This creates a powerful impetus for change.

In a society that cares deeply for the future of our most vulnerable members, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 without exception is one of many steps forward if we want to see positive change in both community safety and in the lives of children and young people. Following that, we must invest heavily in measures that address offending, when we see the first indications of such behaviours, not entrench it to become a problem for life.

Meena Singh is Victoria’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.

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