Raising The Criminal Age Only Sweeps Youth Crime Under the Carpet

Written by:
8 July 2024
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In this article, Research Analyst Mia Schlicht contextualises and disseminates the IPA’s research on criminal justice reform.

The Victorian state government has committed to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 years old to 12, and to 14 years old by 2027 in an effort, it says, to avoid young people entering the criminal justice system early.

Yet, the recent case of a 14-year-old, who is on bail and had more than 380 charges, struck out because of his age.

He has been described by a magistrate as “causing terror” in the community, which sums up all that is wrong with plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

Not holding young offenders accountable for their actions will not halt the issue of youth crime.

If anything, it will likely reinforce the sense of impunity many young offenders already feel, and will do nothing to stem the number of home invasions, thefts, assaults, and robberies that have skyrocketed post-pandemic.

The Victorian Crime Statistics Agency reveals the number of alleged offences committed by young people aged 10 to 14 has increased 37 percent over the last five years. In 2024, there were over 6,800 alleged offences committed by this age group.

However, according to data released by the Productivity Commission, only 15 young people aged 10 to 13 were incarcerated over the 2022-23 financial year.

These figures show what happens when you do not punish or seek to rehabilitate young offenders. Little wonder many youths gleefully plaster their crimes across social media, underscoring their contempt for the law.

The government’s justification for raising the criminal age limit is that children belong in schools rather than the criminal justice system, this is unlikely to alter their mindset.

Not only would this teach young offenders that they can evade the consequences of their behaviour, but it also provides a dangerous opportunity for older offenders to recruit younger people to commit crimes on their behalf, safe in the knowledge that these children will not be prosecuted.

Lack of Options for Judges

Further, the debate around the age of criminal responsibility is driven by the assumption that entanglement with the criminal justice system inevitably means jail time for children.

This reveals a key problem with existing arrangements—namely the lack of deterrents available to judges when sentencing young people.

It is widely recognised that detention can be harmful for young offenders and should be avoided where possible.

Instead, many offenders, particularly non-violent offenders, are handed light non-custodial sentences that fail to address the factors behind their behaviour.

There must be punishments available to judges that are appropriate for those offenders not serious enough to be incarcerated, but whose conduct—and the decision-making behind it—requires intervention.

There’s a Model to Copy

Sentencing reform should begin with adopting practices successfully implemented in the United States.

Rancho Cielo in California has established a successful program for non-violent offenders on probation and at-risk youth, with a focus on rehabilitation and providing skills for life.

Youth offenders are sent to the ranch as students, where they receive a high school education while also being enrolled in workshops that teach practical and employable skills.

The ranch operates at just a quarter of the cost of local prisons and has reduced youth reoffending rates from 40 percent to 15 percent over two decades.

Such programs not only take the offender away from social groups encouraging offending, but also stop youth offenders heading down the wrong path.

The most dangerous offender is one with nothing to lose. Giving young offenders hope and opportunity to build a career gives them something to lose.

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