The youth justice system is the set of processes and practices for managing children and young people who have committed, or allegedly committed, an offence. 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. A major component of the system is the supervision of young people in the community or in detention.
In Australia, youth justice is the responsibility of state and territory governments, and each has its own legislation, policies and practices. However, the general processes by which young people are charged and sentenced, and the types of legal orders available to the courts, are similar.
Young people can currently be charged with a criminal offence if they are aged 10 and older (10 is the current age of criminal responsibility). However, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is currently being reviewed. The Northern Territory passed legislation in November 2022 that raised the age of criminal responsibility, from 10 to 12 years. Once the change commences in 2023, it will mean that young people in the Northern Territory can be charged with a criminal offence if they are aged 12 or older. The Australian Capital Territory has committed to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14, with legislation expected to be introduced in 2023.
The upper age limit for treatment as a young person is 17 in all states and territories.
Some young people aged 18 and older are also involved in the youth justice system. Reasons for this include the offence being committed when the young person was aged 17 or younger, the continuation of supervision once they turn 18, the individual’s vulnerability or immaturity, or the use of the ‘dual track’ sentencing system in Victoria (whereby a person aged 18–20 may be sentenced to detention in a youth centre where the court deems this appropriate).
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 any 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, which can be ‘supervised’ or ‘unsupervised’.
Young people may be supervised in the community or in detention. They may be supervised when they have not yet been sentenced—that is, when they have been charged with an offence and are awaiting the outcome of their court case or sentence hearing. They may also be sentenced to a period of supervision if they are found guilty in court.
Some groups of young people are over-represented in youth justice supervision in Australia. Indigenous young people are more likely than non-Indigenous young people to be under supervision, both in the community and in detention. Over-representation is also found among young males compared with young females, young people in Very remote areas compared with young people in Major cities, and young people living in the lowest socioeconomic areas compared with young people living in the highest socioeconomic areas.
The national data collection relating to youth justice supervision is the Youth Justice National Minimum Data Set (YJ NMDS). The YJ NMDS is managed by the AIHW. It contains information on young people who were supervised by a youth justice agency in Australia from 2000–01 onwards, and their legal orders.
On an average day in 2021–22, 4,536 young people aged 10 and over were under youth justice supervision
82% of young people under supervision on an average day were supervised in the community and the remainder in detention
On an average night in the June quarter 2022, 818 young people were in detention
Most (81%) young people in detention were aged 14–17, the remainder were aged 10–13 (5%) or 18 and over (13%)
53% of those under youth justice supervision in 2020–21 interacted with the child protection system in the last 5 years
28% of those under youth justice supervision in 2020–21 interacted with the child protection system in the same year