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The youth justice system deals with young people who have committed or allegedly committed offences. In Australia, it deals primarily with young people aged 10-17 at the time of the offence, although there are some variations among the states and territories. Youth justice is also known as juvenile justice.

Major parts of the youth justice system include the police, courts and youth justice supervision. Young people first enter the system when they are investigated by police, and charges made against them may be answered in a court. If the charge is proven, the court may hand down any of a number of legal orders, either supervised or unsupervised.

Young people may be supervised in the community or in detention. They may be supervised when they are unsentenced - that is, when they have been charged with an offence and are awaiting the outcome of their court case or sentencing. They may also be sentenced to a period of supervision if they are proven guilty in court.

These are the latest figures on youth justice supervision from Youth justice in Australia 2012-13.

Flow chart showing the number of young people under supervision, by supervision type, sex and Indigenous status

Across Australia, children under the age of 10 cannot be charged with a criminal offence due to their immaturity. While people aged 10 or over can be deemed to have criminal responsibility, in practice, in all Australian jurisdictions a rebuttable presumption exists (known as doli incapax in common law) that young people between the ages of 10 and 14 are incapable of crime.

There are separate justice systems for young people and adults in all states and territories, each with its own legislation. The upper age limit in the youth justice system is 17 in all states and territories except Queensland, where the age limit is 16. This refers to the age of the young person when the offence was committed (or allegedly committed), and means that people who are aged 18 or older (17 or older in Queensland) when they (allegedly) commit an offence will be dealt with under the criminal legislation relating to adults.

However, it is possible for young people aged 18 or older to be under youth justice supervision. This includes young people who:

  • were apprehended for an offence (allegedly) committed when they were aged 17 or younger
  • entered supervision when aged 17 or younger and continue to be supervised within the youth justice system once they turn 18 (or they may be transferred to the adult correctional system)
  • are treated as a young person due to their vulnerability or immaturity (in some states and territories)
  • are aged 18-20 in Victoria, as they may be sentenced to detention in a youth detention centre rather than an adult prison where the court deems this appropriate (known as the 'dual track' sentencing system).

Principles of the youth justice system

A key principle of the Australian youth justice system is that young people should be detained only as a last resort. This is consistent with United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children should be deprived of liberty for the shortest appropriate period of time. It is also consistent with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice ('The Beijing Rules'). This principle is legislated in each state and territory.

State and territory legislation also allows young people to be diverted away from further involvement in the youth justice system when appropriate. They may be diverted from the youth justice system altogether (such as an informal warning by police); referred to services outside the system (such as drug and alcohol treatment); or diverted from continued contact with the system by police or courts (such as conferencing).

Pathways through the system

The figure below summarises a range of possible pathways through the youth justice system. The stages that require a young person to be supervised by youth justice agencies and are included in the Juvenile Justice National Minimum Data Set (JJ NMDS) are shaded. These stages are the focus of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's reporting series on youth justice supervision.

Figure: Overview of the youth justice system in Australia

Flow chart showing a summary of the possible pathways through the youth justice system

Notes

  1. Shaded objects indicate youth justice agency involvement. These areas of the youth justice system are within the scope of the JJ NMDS, and are the focus of the AIHW's report series on youth justice supervision.
  2. This diagram is an indicative summary and is not intended to reflect all possible pathways.