Queensland’s age of criminal responsibility is 17; a whole year younger than the other states in Australia. This difference and the consequences it has on Queensland’s youth is deeply concerning.

Children under the age of 10 cannot be charged with a criminal offence. Between 10 and 14, there is a presumption that the child is not criminally responsible – but this can be rebutted if the prosecution can prove the child knew that what they were doing was wrong. Once a child turns 15, they are presumed to be criminally responsible for their actions as a juvenile offender.

These rules are the same across all Australian jurisdictions. However, in Queensland, unlike any other State or Territory, a 17 year old is not considered a juvenile offender but rather, an adult offender. This is a significant discrepancy that ought to be addressed by our State Government.

Young people are still undergoing important brain development, and both behavioural psychology and neuroscience attest that adolescents are less able to control their impulses, plan ahead, and weigh the consequences of their decisions before acting. This, and their susceptibility to peer influence, means that young people are attracted to novel and risky activities and may become involved in criminal behaviour. When this occurs, the solution is rarely a jail term.

Jails are not a good place for rehabilitating adults. For children, they are even worse. Studies have shown that prisons are like ‘crime universities’ for young people. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare have released statistics that state that 71% of young people in detention between 2010-11 had returned to sentenced supervision within one year, and 91% had returned within two years. Youth justice should focus on rehabilitation to ensure that young offenders don’t become adult offenders.

It is not all doom and gloom! The impressionability of young people also means that they are receptive to positive interventions and can be guided to a better path. Diverting young people from formal court processes and from prison environments is most important. Rehabilitation must assume primary importance when dealing with young people.

We live in a modern world where a great volume of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that 17 year olds (and even those older than this) should not be considered criminally responsible to the same extent as adult offenders. Furthermore, we have the resources and professionals required to implement effective rehabilitation programs. These options should be made available to 17 year olds.

The Newman Government removed a provision in the Youth Justice Act which made imprisonment a last resort for young offenders. Fortunately, the Palaszczuk Government has announced that they will act on their election promise to repeal these laws. However, the current Queensland Labor Government has an opportunity to make further changes to the law which could bring Queensland in-line with the other jurisdictions in Australia.

Children occupy a very vulnerable space in our society. They are often voiceless, and even invisible, when arguments are fought over them. Protections such as increasing the age of criminal responsibility are key steps in securing justice for these people.

Robertson O’Gorman represents young people charged with criminal offences. Call us today on 3034 0000.