Kids in court: leave the law alone

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“What kind of a message are we sending to 12 and 13-year-olds if they know they can do anything and get away with it because they can’t be charged?” asks BILL STEFANIAK

I WAS delighted to see my former Assembly colleague Michael Moore devote a recent column to discussing the age of criminal responsibility (“Ten is too young to be sending kids to detention”, CN April 1). 

Bill Stefaniak. Photo: Holly Treadaway.

I was pleased to see he had some good schemes and ideas on how to rehabilitate and help troubled young people. 

However, I strongly disagree with his view that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 14 (from 10). 

A court has to be satisfied that any child before it charged with an offence who is aged between 10 and 14 must know what they have allegedly done is wrong (criminal intent). If they don’t, they cannot be convicted.

Very few young people aged 10, 11 and 12 actually get charged. If they do, very few go to a juvenile justice institution. I challenge the minister to publish the figures for 2015-2020 inclusive as to how many 10 to 13-year-olds have served time in Bimberi after being convicted for substantive offences. The minister can also list the figures for the same years for the number of young people in that age group who may have been locked up while on remand. 

The Children’s Court has a rule that incarceration in Bimberi is an absolute last resort and the courts will bust a gut to do all they can to impose non-custodial sentences. Sadly, some young people are actually better off in custody because they are in a safer environment than they would be in their “home”.

The age of criminal responsibility used to be 8 to 14. Raising it to 10 was reasonable as I don’t recall any 8 and 9-year-olds coming before the courts when I was a prosecutor and defence solicitor (1976 to 1989 and 1993 to 1995). I do recall prosecuting a few 10 and 11-year-olds who clearly knew what they were doing. 

I certainly knew of a number of 12 and 13-year-olds who committed some very serious crimes fully aware that what they were doing was wrong. 

If a juvenile is in Bimberi they can be assisted by training programs. I made sure when I was minister responsible for Quamby (1995-1998) that there was a school there up to year 10 and trade courses available as well. Some young people left with year 10 certificates and credits towards their apprenticeships that were started in custody. 

I don’t know what the figures are like now but in the late 1990s our figures showed that most graduates of Quamby actually did not go on to an adult jail.

If the law is changed a 13-year-old cannot be prosecuted for murder or armed robbery. That is just plain stupid. 

Young people aged 10 to 13 are much more likely to be deterred from committing offences if they know they can be charged and appear before a court. What kind of a message are we sending to 12 and 13-year-olds if they know they can do anything and get away with it because they can’t be charged? 

This proposal is a distraction, beloved of trendy lefties, but is not a problem in reality. Indeed, it only becomes a problem if the Assembly passes such a law. 

My advice is to leave the law as it is and concentrate on good rehabilitation programs in Bimberi and schemes such as Michael Moore suggests.

Bill Stefaniak is the convenor of the Belco Party, and a former Liberal opposition leader, attorney-general, police minister and minister for children, youth and family services. 


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