The Territory government has made its most detailed announcement on its plans to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility with a staged implementation to kick off in the new year.
It’s also revealed that exceptions for young people aged 12 to 13 who commit the most serious crimes will form part of future legislation.
Next year, the government will introduce a bill to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) to 12 immediately upon passage of the legislation.
It will then be increased to 14 within two years.
Once implemented, police will retain the power to intervene in situations where a young person is at risk of causing harm.
They currently have those powers for children under the age of 10.
The upcoming draft bill will now include the possibility for exceptions for the older cohort of 12 to 13-year-olds who commit serious crimes like murder and sexual assault to face criminal sanctions.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith characterised this decision as important in ensuring community support for reform.
“We know the community wants to see [that older cohort] held to account in a restorative way,” she said.
“[That would mean] being able to engage in restorative practice with victims and ensuring the victims continue to get support.”
It’s unlikely repeat offenders would be considered in those exceptions as the government hopes a support response will stop them from reoffending.
Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said he was confident the government also retained the support of the Territory’s police as it embarked on this path.
This is despite a recent influx in media from ACT Policing about juveniles involved in crimes like dangerous driving and theft.
Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan told an annual reports hearing earlier this week (1 November) that he was interested in providing the facts to the community.
Mr Rattenbury said discussions would continue with police in the next few months.
“Police don’t want to be arresting children, but they do need to see options for when they are engaged in harmful behaviour,” he said.
The ACT Government has promised that the service and support system is ready to handle a small cohort of 10 and 11-year-olds – around 10 to 15 – who offend and become entangled with the criminal justice system.
As the cohort of 12 to 13-year-olds is slightly larger – between 30 and 40 – the government is concerned those wraparound support services aren’t yet capable of managing an increase in demand.
Exactly what support services and what a “support response” will look like will be up for discussion in the next few months before the legislation is introduced to the Legislative Assembly.
Ms Stephen-Smith said it was important an actual alternative pathway for young people who commit offences existed.
“Simply raising the age and creating a basic response … is not going to change the life trajectories of young people,” she explained.
“It’s not going to work for community safety.”
Ms Stephen-Smith highlighted early intervention and support for entire families as two elements of a future therapeutic panel and wraparound support system.
The government is also exploring the creation of a “therapeutic order” that would compel people to reside at a specific facility for a set amount of time and is looking into increased options for police to take young people to if they cannot return home safely.
Minister for Youth Justice Emma Davidson said she was confident the support services would be ready and able to catch children and their families who had been falling through the gaps – some for generations.
“It’s about addressing the cracks in the system that we know are there so that young people are not engaging in risky and harmful behaviour,” she explained.
“And if they do, we can change the pathway they are on and change that trajectory as soon as possible.”
Across the country, the MACR is currently 10 in all jurisdictions and most states are considering raising the age to 12.