Last updated 10 May 2022

Human Rights and Youth Justiceclick to download a pdf of this chapter
Youth Offending
The Youth Justice System
Police Diversion of Child Offenders from the Court System
Police Prosecution of a Child
Children and Bail
The Childrens Court
Children and Court Processes
Sentencing Regime and other Orders for Child Offenders
Child Offenders in Detention
Lawyers Working with Young Offenders as Clients
Children and the Criminal Law – Tips for Parents

Queensland’s Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld) (Criminal Code) contains most of the offences that make up the criminal law in Queensland. It also provides that the criminal law applies to any person who has reached the minimum age of criminal responsibility. The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Queensland and across Australia is 10 years. 

If a child aged 10 or older is alleged to have broken the law, they can be prosecuted and sentenced if found guilty. If the child is aged 17 or under, this happens within the youth justice system. Once a person turns 18 they are dealt with in the adult system. However, as will be discussed, child offenders (those aged 10 to17 years) are not dealt with very differently to adult offenders.

There is currently discussion across Australia as to whether it is appropriate to prosecute someone as young as 10. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended in 2019 that the age should be lifted to 14 years. The majority of the world has a lower limit of 12 years or above, with 14 years being common.

Children are not miniature adults. The human brain is undeveloped at birth. The developing brain is directly influenced by early environmental enrichment and social experiences. Experiences can change the brain throughout life, but experiences in the first three years of life organise the brain. The experiences an infant has are crucial. Experience wires the brain and ongoing repetition strengthens the wiring.

The next critical stage is when the brain of the adolescent undergoes remodelling and transforms into the adult brain—a process that takes until at least 24 years of age in healthy development. The emotional part of the teen brain has more intense responses than that of an adult because emotional regulation is still developing. Surges in neurotransmitters (dopamine) drive thrill-seeking behaviour in order to obtain rapid rewards. At the same time, adolescents are experiencing significant physical and emotional changes, which can make this a confusing and challenging time. If trauma or chronic stress has occurred in a teen’s life, brain development is disrupted and delayed, and often disorganised and unintegrated. They experience the same changes and remodelling as the healthy teen brain, only in chaos (Hoehn, 2013).

For this chapter, the term ‘child’ refers to a person who has turned 10 years of age but not yet turned 18 and so are subject to the youth justice jurisdiction if alleged to have broken the law.