There is a renewed push to raise the age at which young Australians are considered criminally responsible, with the Law Council of Australia, the Australian Medical Association and former youth detainee Dylan Voller joining a group advocating for change.
- Dylan Voller, who appeared in a Four Corners program investigating youth in detention, raises his concerns over the age of criminal culpability
- Alongside Mr Voller, a number of groups are calling for a change to the age
- Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 is a key recommendation of the royal commission into the NT youth justice system
At a state and federal level, the current age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old.
That means children as young as 10 can technically be arrested and charged before the courts and detained in youth detention.
Mr Voller became well-known in 2016, when vision of him as a 17-year-old hooded and strapped to a chair in the Don Dale youth detention centre was aired by ABC’s Four Corners.
By that stage, he had already been in and out of jail for years for a range of crimes including car theft, robbery and assault.
“I first went into custody at 11,” Mr Voller said.
“I got my first sentence at 12 or 13 years old for 22 months in jail.
“At that time, everybody else was 16 or 17. It was scary. I had a lot of bad influences to do bad stuff by the older fellas in there.
“Now I’m older, I realise how mentally damaging it was for me and how much it impacted me, going in and out and in and out in my cycle of life.”
Mr Voller was in contact with the courts earlier this year, after he pleaded guilty to a bomb hoax at the Commonwealth Games.
Arguments raised for age change
Norway, Finland and Sweden have an age of criminal responsibility set at 15. In Brazil, Peru and Uruguay, it is even higher at 18.
Raising the age in Australia has been hotly debated for years.
Late last year, the Council of Attorney-Generals (COAG) agreed to look at the issue over the next 12 months.
In March, the Australian Medical Association announced it supported raising the age to 14 and, while on tour in Australia this month, the head of Amnesty International also urged Australia to change its laws.
The Law Council of Australia previously argued that the age should be raised to 12, however on Wednesday it announced it now believed the minimum age should be even higher at 14.
“The minimal age of criminal responsibility in Australia does not meet standards from the United Nation on the rights of the child,” Law Council of Australia president Arthur Moses said.
“Young people within young justice have higher rates of mental health conditions.
“And children under 14 don’t have the cognitive ability to understand that what they may be doing constitutes a criminal act.”
Mr Moses says there is a legal safeguard — doli incapax — that assumes that children as young as 10 did not know what they were doing when they committed a crime.
The onus is on the prosecution to prove otherwise, however Mr Moses said that does not always happen as intended.
“Some courts have put it onto the accused to establish that they were incapable of knowing that what they were doing in effect was wrong and constituted a criminal act,” he said.
Victims of crime may not support move
Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into the NT youth justice system.
The NT Government confirmed there was currently just one child under 14 years of age in detention in the NT.
Elle Jackson from Jesuit Social Services has worked with young offenders both in the NT and Victoria, including some aged 13.
“Primary school-aged children never belong in prison. They belong in school,” Ms Jackson said.
She said she understood that victims of crimes committed by young offenders may not support a change to the age of criminal responsibility, however putting children in detention did not prevent future crimes.
“I think it’s important that we actually look at what happens before a child reaches that point of getting to court,” she said.
“We need to see them held in the community and kept accountable in a way they understand.
“Something like victim group conferencing or other programs to keep them engaged in education and connection to their community.”
When asked how he would argue the case for raising the age to those impacted by his crimes, Mr Voller said youth needed more help to understand their actions.
“You’ve got 10- and 11-year-olds being chucked in custody when they don’t have the mindset to really get through their head of what they’re doing and actually get them help,” he said.