Victoria to raise age of criminal responsibility to 12 with no exceptions

<span>The Victorian premier, Jacinta Allan, says the state will become the first to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12, following the Northern Territory and the ACT.</span><span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
The Victorian premier, Jacinta Allan, says the state will become the first to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12, following the Northern Territory and the ACT.Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Victoria is set to become the first state in Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12, although police will be given new powers to use “limited force” to compel 10- and 11-year-olds to accompany them to a police station.

The changes will form part of the government’s long-awaited youth justice bill, which will be introduced to parliament on Tuesday. The bill also includes measures that the premier, Jacinta Allan, said would crack down on “serious, high-risk and repeat” youth offending.

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“This is legislation that will reduce youth offending, it will increase safety, but ... it will provide an opportunity for young people to turn their lives around,” Allan told reporters.

Under the bill, 10- and 11-year-olds will no longer be able to be arrested, charged with a crime or detained.

The government will also codify the existing legal presumption known as doli incapax, which states a child under 14 cannot be held criminally responsible unless they know their actions are seriously wrong.

Police will be given new powers to ensure children aged 10 and 11, who are at a risk to themselves or others, “can be transported somewhere safe and to someone who can take care of them”.

The attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, said if police were unable to contact someone to care for a child, they could transport them to a police station.

“There will be the ability to use limited force – i.e., take the child by the arm … support the child into a vehicle in order to protect them [and] protect the community, to bring them back and make sure that the right services can be provided,” Symes said.

Police will be required to record these interactions, she added.

The bill will also lower the age of prosecution for recruiting children into criminal activity from 21 to 18. Symes said this would close a “loophole” that could result in the recruitment of young people to commit crimes.

The government said only a “small group” of children aged 10 to 11 were known to police.

However, it is concerned about a group of “100-200” older young people it described as “repeat offenders”, and which it has targeted with several measures, including a trial of electronic monitoring for 50 repeat offenders on bail and a new legislated scheme for warnings, cautions and diversions.

The bill will also tighten the eligibility requirements for people aged 18 to 21 to be placed in a youth justice facility and make it easier to transfer people aged 16 and older into an adult prison.

If the bill is passed, Victoria would become the first state to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

The Northern Territory raised it to 12 in 2023, while the Australian Capital Territory will raise it to 14 by 2026. Tasmania has announced it will lift the minimum age of incarceration to 14 by the end of 2024, but will leave the age of criminal responsibility at 10.

Several human rights groups and Indigenous organisations had called for Victoria to immediately raise the age to 14, in line with medical expert advice and international standards for child development. But the government has no plans to do this until at least 2027.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s managing lawyer, Monique Hurley, said the government should have gone further.

“Children do not belong in prisons. Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years old now is the bare minimum reform the premier must action,” Hurley said.

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“This reform must apply to all children – no exemptions and no new police powers.”

The state Greens leader, Ellen Sandell, claimed the government had “caved in to right-wing pressure” and “chosen to ignore all the advice of experts and First Nations communities” to raise the age to 14.

But Wayne Gatt, the secretary of the Police Association, urged caution.

“Crime data in Victoria clearly indicates that the age of 12 is a critical turning point in the debate about raising the age of criminal responsibility. It is the age at which the prevalence and severity of criminal offending spikes,” he said.

The opposition leader, John Pesutto, said the Coalition would form a position on the bill once they had seen the thousand-page document in full.