Tuesday, 20 December 2022

Questions without notice and ministers statements

Age of criminal responsibility

Samantha RATNAM, Jaclyn SYMES

Age of criminal responsibility

Samantha RATNAM (Northern Metropolitan) (16:11): (2) My question is for the Attorney-General. Attorney, last week the advice to the council of attorneys-general from the age of criminal responsibility working group was made public. It contained a recommendation that the age of criminal responsibility be raised to 14 without exception. This is a recommendation that has been held in secret for two years. Victoria has only a small number of children under 14 in detention, but the report explicitly pointed to the catastrophic harm all forms of early contact with the criminal justice system have. Every day we delay this overdue reform, the more harm that is caused to the most vulnerable young children in the state. Given this, will your government now commit to starting the process for raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years?

Jaclyn SYMES (Northern Victoria – Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (16:12): I thank Dr Ratnam for her question and her ongoing interest in this matter, and of course I share her interest in ensuring that young people are not caught up in the justice system and indeed in our custodial arrangements. For the record, I was not Attorney-General when that report was commissioned. I note that you say it has been secret for two years, but it certainly was reported in the Australian 12 months ago to quite a level of detail that probably disputes the fact that it is a secret report. But, nonetheless, information contained in that is not a state secret. We all know that there are damaging impacts on young people who come into contact with the justice system, and the whole point is to keep them out.

We have had numerous conversations in this place in the past, and my position on this is well known. It is not just the number that I am worried about; it is what we do with these kids when they come into contact with the justice system. But coming back to raw numbers, as of 11:59 pm last night there were a total of six young people, including up to 14-year-olds, on remand, none of whom were Aboriginal and none who were aged 10, 11 or 12. We are dealing with very small cohorts of people. The young people in the youngest cohorts are ages 10 to 11. There have been no children since 2018 that have served a custodial sentence in that cohort. I know that the response is: it does not mean that just because there are small numbers we do not do anything. That is why we have to have the programs in place, whether it is through our educational facilities or whether it is through our other support services and the like. We want to have a coordinated approach so that young people are not caught up in the justice system.

My concern is that when we just talk about raising the age, just keeping a 13-year-old out of jail and putting them on hold until they are 14, it is not a great outcome – just changing the number. It needs to be more than that. We have to have a really good conversation about what other programs are in place and what diversion tactics are in place. And what I can say is that when you look at the stats, when you look at the figures, we are having a great impact, a meaningful impact, because the numbers are indicating that there are only a small group of people, a small group of kids, that are caught up in the system. Unfortunately, what we know from these kids is that a lot of them have come through child protection, they are in out-of-home care, they are complex kids that require a very dedicated response. Just raising the age is not going to help their future. We want to make sure we have a broad approach to ensuring that these kids can be looked after.

The conversation about raising the age is something that we are having at the national level. We will continue to have that. I am not giving you commitments today around what our government will commit to going forward, because there are a lot of conversations needed and a lot of work that needs to be done before you just change a number in a piece of legislation.

Samantha RATNAM (Northern Metropolitan) (16:15): Thank you, Attorney, for your response. Just to respond, firstly, to the latest data you released about the number that are currently being incarcerated and the age profile of them, while I appreciate that it might be a small number now, it has not always been the case historically, and we also know that number does not reflect the true picture of what a lower age of criminal responsibility does to the overpolicing of children. They are the unaccounted-for children that are being connected to the criminal justice system, having harm inflicted upon them because the age has not been raised. I concur with you on the need for support services, and that is something certainly the Greens have been speaking about needing to be implemented in parallel. Speaking, however, about the national approach, with the ACT now well down the road to raising the age, it is self-evident that the only way to have a consistent national approach is if other jurisdictions match their commitment to raising the age to 14, because anything short of this will only result in inconsistency at the national level. So my question is: will Victoria help build a national approach to raising the age by matching the commitment of the ACT, or is it a ‘national approach’ justification just for delay once again?

Jaclyn SYMES (Northern Victoria – Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (16:16): I think I have answered your question, Dr Ratnam, in relation to the processes that are underway at a federal level. It is a really collaborative SCAG that we have got, and a lot of jurisdictions are having conversations about what we do with young people in connection with the justice system. You have said that Victoria should match ACT. National consistency is always going to be better. As a member for Northern Victoria, where you have got offenders in Albury and you have got offenders in Wodonga, it is always better if you have got a similar approach, and I would have thought that New South Wales, having ACT in the middle of them, would have these conversations a lot in relation to their border issues and inconsistent laws. We will continue to have a national conversation. I am sure we will continue to have a conversation at the state level – a conversation with you. I have many stakeholders that raise these issues, none less than the Aboriginal Justice Forum. This is a major priority for them, and as I have said, it is a conversation that we will continue to have. But I am not going to make a commitment around matching ACT when there are other processes underway both at the national level and at the state level.