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Victoria to forge on with raising the age of criminal responsibility, new bail laws

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous groups have criticised the Victorian Opposition for attempting to reintroduce bail laws that were previously labelled an "unmitigated disaster," and which had a particularly detrimental impact on Indigenous people.

It comes as the Victorian government has denied reports they will shelve plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, despite attacks from opposition leader, John Pesutto, on Monday.

Last week, the Liberal-National (LNP) Coalition claimed new bail reforms would endanger the safety of Victorians, with shadow attorney-general, Michael O'Brien, arguing repeat offenders have been given a "free pass" by the government.

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) chief executive Nerita Waight went on the front foot, arguing it was the policies of the LNP that put Indigenous lives at risk.

"John Pesutto promised Victorians that he would be different from the failed leaders that preceded him, but ignoring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices is more of the same tired politics," Ms Waight said.

The Victorian opposition has also come under fire for their withdrawal from Treaty negotiations, despite previously agreeing to be a part of the bi-partisan discussion.

Indigenous leaders and groups who have spoken to National Indigenous Times since the decision have expressed dismay at the lack of respect and communication afforded to them by Mr Pesutto and opposition Indigenous spokesperson Peter Walsh.

Ms Waight, who is also a member of the First Peoples' Assembly, was forthright in her criticism of the two senior LNP MPs.

"John Pesutto seems incapable or unwilling to even respond to our letters, and Peter Walsh behaves like he thinks his job is to reinstate the Victorian Aborigines Protection Act rather than help our people build better lives through self-determination," she said.

The bail laws were labelled "a complete and unmitigated disaster" that discriminate against Aboriginal people by the coroner in the inquest into the death of Veronica Nelson.

Her death in a Victorian prison led to the changes, which some argue haven't gone far enough.

Ms Waight said she was sick of hurtful politics endangering Indigenous people in the state.

"This nasty politics has failed so many times over the last 25 years, and their obsession with being nasty hurts all Victorians," Ms Waight said.

"The fact that they seem scared to even say Veronica Nelson's name shows that they know exactly how nasty they are being."

On Monday, the opposition pivoted their aim to the raising of the age of criminal responsibility. Currently, children as young as 10 can be held on remand and jailed in juvenile detention in Victoria.

The government has committed to raising the age to 12 by the end of the year, and then by 14 by the end of 2027. An independent review panel announced in October have begun consultations on a new alternative service model.

However, the opposition have agitated to keep the age at 10, pointing to recent statistics showing an increase in youth crime across the state as the ostensible reason to maintain the status quo.

"The Allan government ... ideologically is preoccupied with raising the age when everyone is saying, 'don't do this'," Mr Pesutto said, as reported by The Age.

"Raising the age will tell young people that it's OK to engage in acts that they know to be wrong."

Raising the age of criminal responsibility is widely supported by legal, health, human rights, faith and Indigenous groups. 14 is seen as being in line with international standards, alongside evidence from child development experts.

Significant evidence also exists showing early interactions with the justice system exacerbates recidivism, making the community less safe in the long-run.

Ms Waight told National Indigenous Times in January that opposition MP Brad Battin, who broadly supports the raising of the age of criminal responsibility, was the only Coalition MP to visit VALS.

"We don't agree with him on everything, but leadership is about showing up and having those discussions," she said.

A report in Herald Sun on Monday said Labor wanted to abandon the plan to raise the age from 12 to 14, however, a government spokesperson told National Indigenous Times the two-step process had not altered.

"We have always said that we would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 along with an alternative services model that will be implemented by 2027 — that hasn't changed," the spokesperson said.

"This safety net is needed because we know that offending in 12- and 13-year-olds is more serious and complex than that of 10- and 11-year-olds — raising the age without it could put this cohort on a fast-track to the adult prison system, helping no one."

Ms Waight said the evidence was clear: "Putting children in prison does not work."

"It doesn't change the behaviour that it is supposed to – in most cases it makes a difficult situation much worse," she said.

"We know that Victoria should raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old – with no exceptions and no new police powers. We've gone through a few decades of both major parties playing tough on crime and it has not worked."

On Monday, Greens justice spokesperson Katherine Copsey urged the government to forge on with their plans to raise the age.

"For decades First Nations communities have called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 14, backed by expert legal and health advice," she said.

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