‘Belong in school’: force fears as kid arrest ban looms

Callum Godde |

The Victorian government is enacting major reforms of youth justice.
The Victorian government is enacting major reforms of youth justice.

Victoria will become the first Australian state to raise the age of criminal responsibility, but legal advocates say police shouldn’t retain powers to use force on 10 and 11-year-olds.

The Allan government introduced a long-awaited bill to state parliament on Tuesday to create a standalone youth justice act and lift the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12.

Premier Jacinta Allan said the sweeping reforms would crack down on serious, high-risk and repeat offending while giving young people a chance to turn their lives around.

“Ten and 11-year-olds don’t belong in the criminal justice systems … they belong in schools,” she told reporters.

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan
The Allan government is moving to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Victoria. (Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS)

Children as young as 10 can be charged, convicted and imprisoned in every Australian state and territory except the Northern Territory, which raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12 in August 2023.

The ACT passed legislation to raise the age to 14 by 2025 with some exceptions, while Tasmania has pledged to raise the minimum age of criminal detention to 14.

In 2023, the Victorian government vowed to lift the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years, before raising it again to 14 by 2027 with some exceptions for serious offences such as rape and murder.

If the bill passes, police won’t be allowed to arrest or charge a child aged 10 or 11 with a crime but can move them “somewhere safe and to someone who can take care of them”.

“There will be the ability to use limited force, (such as) take the child by the arm … to put the child into a vehicle in order to protect them, to protect the community,” Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said.

Childrens Court of Victoria
Youth justice reforms include more resources for the Children’s Court. (Daniel Pockett/AAP PHOTOS)

The legislation would also lower the age of prosecution for recruiting children to commit crimes from 21 to 18, closing a “loophole” being exploited by criminal syndicates as part of Victoria’s ongoing tobacco war.

Other measures include a scheme for warnings, cautions and diversions and a two-year trial using electronic monitoring of up to 50 repeat teenage offenders on bail.

An extra magistrate will be added to the Children’s Court, new sentencing principles for Aboriginal children will be introduced and there will be stronger systems for transferring those over 16 into adult prisons in certain circumstances.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service welcomed the bill but said it strongly opposed any new police powers to engage with children aged 10 and 11 in a way that replicates criminalisation, as well as the monitoring trial. 

“This is movement towards a legal system that prioritises early intervention, diversion and rehabilitation, and we hoped that the youth justice bill would help us get there,” legal service chief executive Nerita Waight said.

“But trialling electronic ankle bracelets on children is a step in the complete wrong direction.”

Youth crime in Victoria is rising, with children aged 14 to 17 linked to more than 18,700 offences in the state in 2023 – up 30 per cent from 2022.

Shadow Attorney-General Michael O’Brien said dropping 10 and 11-year-old offenders at home was not tackling the growing issue.

“It’s simply a plan to redefine it and pretend it isn’t there,” he said.

Victorian Greens Leader Ellen Sandell said slapping ankle bracelets on children as young as 14 signalled another “race to the bottom” between the major parties on law and order.

In separate legislation slated to be introduced later in 2024, police will get expanded powers to stop and search Victorians without cause for knives and other weapons in public places.

Officers are presently only allowed to stop and search people for weapons in designated areas for up to 12 hours and cannot return to the same spot for 10 days.

Victoria Police said it supports any new powers that will assist the force to search for knives and take them off the streets.

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