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Chief Judge welcomes debate on age of criminal responsibility

Queensland’s Chief Judge has expressed support for ongoing debate to reconsider the age of criminal responsibility for children, saying as one of the first to advocate raising the state’s juvenile offender age limit from 17 to 18 that it took longer than expected.

Chief Judge Kerry O’Brien made the comment while reflecting on his almost 31 years of judicial service to the District Court, saying that much more needed to be done, considering it was only 20-years ago that the Unites States Supreme Court put an end to executing child offenders.

Talking to Proctor ahead of his proposed retirement on August 18, Chief Judge O’Brien said his five-year stint as Childrens Court of Queensland President (2002-07) was extremely rewarding and challenging – in particular working in the only state with a criminal justice system that treated 17 year olds as adults.


Chief Judge O’Brien

“One of the matters that I take some pride in, I was one of the first to call for the raising of the age for juvenile offending (from 17) to 18,” he said “It took a long time for it to happen, and I don’t take all the credit for it, but I think I was one of the first to raise it.

“We had 17 (year olds treated as adults) for a very long time, but raising it to 18 brought us in line with all other Australian states and the United Nations charter for dealing with children.”

After decades of intense lobbying by QLS and other stakeholders, the Queensland Government in September 2017 announced law changes which immediately ended the treatment of 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice and prison system.

Chief Judge O’Brien said he understood the distress and anger caused by media reports on so-called rampant youth crime, but urged people to always remember the very young ages and lack of maturity of the children being targeted with such outrage and vilification.

“I think we have to remember with children, whether we like it or not, the maturity of people of a young age is not that of adults and often the criminality of offending of juveniles is not of the same level as it is with adults,” he said.

“It is only 20 years ago, or thereabouts, the US Supreme Court declared the execution of child offenders in the United States to be cruel and inhumane punishment. They recognised the intellectual capacity of young people is not that of older people, and that the degree of criminality involved is not the same as older people.

“So when people talk about how you deal with juvenile crime or the extent to which you punish juvenile offenders, I think it is important to keep that in mind.

“Of course there are cases where the only proper outcome is some meaningful punishment. But there are many cases of young people who are able to overcome their youthful transgressions and go on to lead lives as worthwhile members of the community.”

Chief Judge O’Brien said he could remember many young juvenile offenders who had passed through his courts over the years who had gone on to become contributing, valuable members of society, because rehabilitation had been the main priority when dealing with their offending behaviour.

“In fact, anecdotally I do recall a young fellow I dealt with (many years ago) – a young Indigenous boy who had been in a lot of trouble,” he said.

“I gave him a talking to and later he wrote to me to tell me he’d made it onto (the Australian) boxing team and that he was grateful for the chance I’d given him. He was very grateful for that opportunity.”

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