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Commission Urges State to Increase Age of Criminal Responsibility for Life-Changing Impact

The Victorian Labor government should urgently legislate on raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years without exception, according to new recommendations.

Yoorrook Justice Commission’s year-long inquiry into the Australian state’s child protection and criminal justice systems found issues such as overt structural racism.

The inquiry heard there was a need to help youths instead of using harsh responses that could lead to criminal activity in the future.

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As a result, the commission put 46 recommendations (pdf) to Victoria’s child protection and criminal justice systems, including raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Victoria from 10 to 14 years and prohibiting detention of children under 16.

Yoorrook Justice Commission Chairperson Eleanor A. Bourke said doing so would move the Victorian criminal justice system away from police and prison expansion, and instead prioritise investment in stronger communities.

“We need a justice system that supports (young) people to break the cycle of offending and make police accountable,” Ms. Bourke said.

Police Repent on Relations With Indigenous Communities

During the inquiry, seven ministers and senior public servants, including Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton, formally apologised for historic and ongoing harm caused by the child protection and criminal justice system. Ms. Bourke said these apologies should be on the public record.

Meanwhile, Mr. Patton was concerned about the Indigenous communities’ faith in Victoria’s child protection and criminal justice system.

“There’s no faith in us (Victoria Police) investigating the matters,” he said.

Ms. Bourke said, “What value should be placed on apologies and concessions unless action is taken?”

When questioned in a press conference about the evidence presented, Premier Daniel Andrews said the government was committed to overhauling Victoria’s child protection system and that throughout the investigation, progress was made regarding Victoria’s minimum age of criminal responsibility.

Ms. Bourke said genuine self-determination would be the most meaningful, transformative change in Victoria’s child protection and criminal justice system.

“Self-determination means Aboriginal people have decision-making power over the issues that affect our lives, including designing, establishing, and controlling the systems and services to support our families and communities to thrive,” she said. “This is what our people seek.”

Support for Recommendations

Legal services were on board with urgent action needed across the child protection and criminal justice systems to reflect accountability and responsiveness to Indigenous communities, while upholding their human rights.

Victoria Legal Aid CEO Louise Glanville said through its “practice experience working in and out of courtrooms every day” it could see “how the criminal justice and child protection systems continue to fail First Nations communities and create or compound disadvantage.”

The primary provider of pro bono legal services statewide supported more broadly prioritising early intervention led by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations.

Earlier support for families would help keep Indigenous children keep out of the criminal justice system and prevent issues from escalating once admitted.

Victoria Legal Aid Family, Youth, and Children’s Law Executive Director Joanne Fletcher said the recommendations identify “in stark detail how, rather than protecting children from harm—far too often the child protection system is funnelling children, sometimes from birth, into contact with police and criminal justice systems.”

“It lays bare how systemic racism continues throughout today’s child protection system, causing great mistrust and deeply unequal outcomes for First Nations children,” Ms. Fletcher said.

Victoria’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children Meena Singh said that to ensure self-determination, the recommendations must focus on the voices of Aboriginal children.

“We urge the government to meet the ambition of these recommendations with appropriate resources,’ Ms Singh said.

It is the first time in history that a government would be required to respond to findings by a truth-telling commission.

In 2013, the Victorian government appointed Australia’s first dedicated Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People. The recommendations from the Commission has called for this role to be enshrined in legislation.

12 Months Too Short to Implement Recommendations

Premier Andrews says the Victorian government would struggle to deliver the Commission’s recommendations within 12 months.

Mr. Andrews described the set time frame as “challenging” and would not commit to meeting that deadline.

“Cabinet will have a proper, deliberative process to work through line by line, recommendation by recommendation, and we will report progress,” he said.

However, the Victorian government did commit to raising the criminal responsibility age from 10 to 12 in 2024 and then 14 by 2027, but the Commission said it was “too slow.”

“I think all of us can agree, except for the most serious of crimes, sending kids to crime school is not necessarily a smart thing to do,” Mr. Andrews said.

Yoorrook Justice Commission will conclude its inquiry with a final report due in 2025.

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