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Victorian government announces new panel in Youth Justice overhaul

Dechlan Brennan -

The Victorian government has taken the next step in their overhaul of the youth criminal justice system in the state, with the announcement of a five-person independent review panel to help advise on a model they say will keep more young Victorians out of prison.

The Allan government that announced the panel would advise on the design and implementation of an alternative service model as a part of the reforms to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

Minister for Children Lizzie Blandthorn said the government was supporting at-risk children and young people.

"The Alternative Service Model will consider a range of early interventions and rehabilitative support services to help children and young people grow up safe, connected and supported to reach their full potential," she said.

The Victorian government, under then Premier Daniel Andrews, committed to raising the age of criminal responsibility; first to 12 by the end of 2024, and then to 14 after reforms - and now the proposed alternative service model - are implemented.

It has come after human rights, legal and Indigenous groups called for an immediate raising of the age to 14 - in line with medical consensus.

A letter from 32 health and medical organisations to all Premiers, Attorneys-General, and Health Ministers in December 2021, said, "children under the age of 14 are undergoing significant growth and development, meaning they may not have the required capacity to be considered criminally responsible."

"Children in our criminal legal system have high rates of additional neurocognitive impairment, trauma and mental health issues."

In a statement on Monday, the government said the panel would "make sure an effective safety net supports at-risk children and their families through a range of early intervention and rehabilitative services as part of the process to raise the age."

Minister for Youth Justice Enver Erdogan said the model would be designed to provide a safer community by giving children and their families "the support they need to turn their lives around and stay out of the criminal justice system for good".

The five-person panel will be chaired by Patricia Faulkner, former Secretary of Victoria's Department of Health and Human Services and Deputy Commissioner of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.

"The best place for a child is with their family, extended family or community. The Independent Review Panel will work to find a model that achieves this," she said.

The other members of the panel are: Andrew Crisp; former Emergency Management Commissioner of Victoria, Andrew Jackomos; proud Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara man, the inaugural Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People and special adviser to government for Aboriginal self-determination, Father Joseph Caddy; Vicar General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and Lisa Ward; deputy chair of Victoria's Sentencing Advisory Council and director of the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

The government has faced consistent criticism for their delays in implementing the raising of the age, as well as other youth justice measures, such as the presumption of innocence for bail for youth offenders.

In August 2022, a petition was handed over signed by over 65,000 Victorian residents which called on the government to raise the age to 14.

In September, the Yoorrook Justice Commission recommended raising the criminal age of responsibility to 14 and eliminating incarceration for people under 16.

"We know the earlier a child goes into the criminal justice system the more likely they are to stay entrenched and the more likely they are to progress to adult offending," Victoria's Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Meena Singh, said at the time.

In the wake of the report, Daniel Andrews refused to commit to the "challenging" 12 month time-frame called for by the commission.

Earlier this month, Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes was accused of backflipping by pushing back bail reform for children until the new year, something she denied. Nevertheless, a new Youth Justice Bill will not be tabled in parliament until at least 2024.

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