Age of Criminal Responsibility (SA)
The minimum age of criminal responsibility is the age at which a juvenile can be arrested, summonsed, charged with and found guilty of a criminal offence. In South Australia the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10, as it currently is in all Australian states and territories. However, these laws are often criticised and suggestions made that the age should be higher and sometimes that it should be lower. This page deals with the age of criminal liability in South Australia.
In South Australia, the age of criminal responsibility is stated in section 5 of the Young Offenders Act 1993.
What if a child under 10 does something wrong?
Actions committed by children under 10 are not offences, as the children are considered too young to be held accountable for their actions in the same way as adults.
In the event that a child under 10 engages in a violent act, theft, or other action that would constitute an offence if committed by an adult, the usual course of action involves parents or teachers punishing the child or providing counselling to teach the child appropriate behaviour.
What if a child between 10 and 14 commits an offence?
A child under 14 cannot be held criminally responsible for an act unless it is demonstrated that they were capable of comprehending that the action was “wrong.”
While children over 10 may be held accountable for their conduct, the law acknowledges that many children aged between 10 and 14 lack the emotional and intellectual maturity to differentiate between right and wrong, and therefore should not be held responsible. If a child between 10 and 14 is charged with an offence but the prosecution fails to persuade the court that they had the requisite capacity, the child will be acquitted on the grounds of “immature age.”
If a child over10 is found to have understood that they should not have committed the act, they will be found guilty and sentenced by the Youth Court.
How are juvenile offenders dealt with?
Offenders under 18 are dealt with by the Youth Court in South Australia. The Youth Court has the power to impose a range of penalties including a period of youth detention. When the court is sentencing a juvenile, it is required to deliver a sentence that focuses on rehabilitation as more important than other sentencing principles.
Arguments for raising the age of criminal responsibility
The human rights violations that recently came to light in the Don Dale Detention Center in Northern Territory brought attention to youth justice in Australia. Compared to the international average of 14, the minimum age for criminal responsibility in Australia is low. This has resulted in the criminalization and detention of children as young as 10, leading to negative outcomes for young individuals who become involved with the criminal justice system.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as well as those who are poor, homeless, mentally ill, or in out-of-home care, are disproportionately represented in youth detention. A low minimum age for criminal responsibility can exacerbate existing social and economic inequities.
During adolescence, the brain undergoes significant development, presenting both risks and opportunities. Positive experiences during this period can lead to young people thriving, while negative experiences can lead to suffering. Premature criminal punishment may hinder the ability of young people to develop into functional members of society, making it counterproductive. This is evident in the high rate of reoffending among those who were first charged with a crime while under 14 years old.
The criminal justice system is believed to not adequately address the needs of young people and can harm their long-term prospects.
Arguments for retaining a low age of criminal responsibility
Opponents of raising the age of criminal responsibility claim that young people are responsible for committing serious offences, and that a tough approach should be taken to youth crime. Those who support the current age of criminal responsibility also argue that increasing it may lead to older children exploiting younger children to carry out crimes.
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