The ACT Government has committed to undertake the policy work to enable the Territory to increase the age of criminal responsibility in the next term of government from 10 to 14.
Increasing the age of criminal responsibility would be an Australian first and would bring the ACT in line with the United Nations threshold.
The move has been welcomed by advocates like the ACT Law Society, whose president, Chris Donohue, said it was “much-overdue reform”.
“We are cautiously optimistic about today’s decision,” he said. “We should be treating children like children, not criminals.
“However, there is a need for action on this reform to be taken more quickly. The law society, and our specialist legal committees, stand ready to assist the ACT Government with the next steps.”
The motion was moved by Greens leader Shane Rattenbury who said it was imperative that the ACT led the nation in criminal justice reform.
“Where children are imprisoned, it sets the trajectory for the rest of their lives and increases the risk they will be involved in the adult criminal justice system as they mature,” he said.
“With the right supports in place, and a well-resourced youth sector, we can provide better alternatives to custody for children under 14.
“We can better support these children by providing them with the help they need to stay on the right path.”
A 2011 human rights audit of the Bimberi Youth Justice Centre called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 12.
However, ACT Human Rights Commissioner Helen Watchirs says more recent studies recommended an increase from 12 to 14 due to “evidence in relation to brain development for complex reasoning regarding consequences and impulse control, which is not developed until the age of 14 generally”.
“[In 2019] the UN changed the minimum age from 12 to 14, so that is now the international standard.”
Although there are legal measures in place to ensure that children who do not know what they are doing are protected, in practice, it is often hard to implement, ACT Human Rights Commission Young People Commissioner Jodie Griffiths-Cook said.
Across the country, there are around 600 children under the age of 14 in our prisons every year, and 10 of them are just 10-years-old, according to the previous President of the Law Council of Australia, Arthur Moses.
Mr Moses previously called the current age of criminal responsibility an “indictment on our nation”.