The Age of Criminal Responsibility (NT)
The age of criminal responsibility is the age that a person can be arrested, summonsed, charged with and found guilty of criminal offences. In the Northern Territory, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 (Criminal Code Act 1983, Section 38). The age of criminal responsibility is 10 everywhere in Australia. However, these laws have been much criticised with many arguing that the age should be higher.
What if a child under 10 commits an offence?
When a child under 10 does an act, it is not regarded as an offence even if the act would amount to an offence if an older person did it. This is because children younger than 10 are considered too young to be held criminally responsible for their actions.
If a child under 10 commits a violent act, steals or does some other act that would be an offence if done by an older child, this is generally dealt with by parents or teachers, or by providing counselling to the child in order to teach them appropriate behaviour.
Defence of ‘immature age’
Under section 38 of the Criminal Code Act, a child under 14 is not criminally responsible for an act, unless the court is satisfied that at the time of doing the act, the child had the capacity to know they should not do the act.
This means that while children aged ten and older can be held criminally responsible for offences, the law recognises that many children over 10 but under 14 are insufficiently mature to understand the difference between right and wrong and should not be held responsible for their acts at law.
If a child between 10 and 14 is charged with an offence, but the prosecution is unable to convince the court that the child had this capacity, the court will find the child not guilty on the basis of ‘immature age.’
If a child over 10 is found to have committed an act and had the capacity to understand that they ought not to have done the act, they will be found guilty and sentenced in the Youth Justice Court.
How are juvenile offenders dealt with?
Offenders under 18 are dealt with by the Youth Justice Court. The Youth Justice Court has the power to impose a range of sentences including fines, Community Work Orders and terms of youth detention. When sentencing a young person, courts must deliver sentences that focus on rehabilitation as a higher priority than other sentencing principles like deterrence and just punishment.
Arguments for raising the age of criminal responsibility
The recent media attention on human rights abuses in Don Dale Detention Centre focused attention on youth justice in Australia and particularly in the Northern Territory. The age of criminal responsibility in Australia is lower than the international average. The criminalisation of children at a young age, and their resulting incarceration as early as 10, is felt by many to lead to poor outcomes for people who come into contact with the criminal justice system at a young age and a higher chance that these young people will be incarcerated as adults.
In the NT, Indigenous children are grossly over-represented in youth detention. Young people who are homeless, poor, mentally ill or in out-of-home care are particularly likely to be in detention. A low age of criminal responsibility can exacerbate existing social and economic disadvantages.
Adolescence involves significant brain development, which experts consider to be a period of both risk and opportunity. While positive experiences during adolescence can lead young people to thrive, negative experiences lead them to suffer. Premature criminal punishment can therefore be counterproductive as it can damage the ability of young people to develop into functional members of the community. There is a very high rate of recidivism among young offenders who are first charged with an offence while under 14.
Many people feel that the criminal justice system does not address the needs of young people and harms children’s long-term prospects.
Arguments for keeping a low age of criminal responsibility
Opponents of raising the age argue that young people commit serious offences and that a ‘hard line’ approach should be taken to these young offenders.
Supporters of the current age of criminal responsibility maintain that raising the age would be likely to lead to older children using younger ones to carry out offences because of a perception that they can ‘get away with it’.
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