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Rethinking sentencing for young adult offenders

Criminal law Sentencing Victoria

This report examines the options available to judicial officers when sentencing young adult offenders aged 18 to 25 in Victoria. Collectively, this group is referred to as ‘young adult offenders’.

A subset of this group, young offenders aged 18 to 20 at the time of sentencing, are eligible for dual track in Victoria. Dual track allows a court to sentence young offenders to detention in a youth justice centre, rather than an adult prison, providing they satisfy the eligibility criteria.

Young adults offend at higher rates than older adults. As shown below, a large number of alleged offenders in Victoria are aged 15 to 24. The rate declines significantly for alleged offenders aged 25 to 29. This does not take into account the relative seriousness of the offences with which the alleged offenders have been charged nor the frequency of those offences. However, it is clear that young adults commit a disproportionate amount of crime.

There is mounting scientific evidence that young adults aged 18 to 25 are developmentally distinct from older adults and should be treated as such by the justice system. Research in neurology and developmental psychology has demonstrated that cognitive skills and emotional intelligence continue to develop into a person’s mid-20s, and even beyond.

Research shows that young adult offenders generally reduce their offending behaviour as they mature into adulthood, and most will eventually stop. This natural desistance, along with the fact that behaviour patterns are not as firmly entrenched in young adults as in older adults, means that young adult offenders can be more responsive to rehabilitative interventions than older adults. There is potential to improve outcomes for both society and young adult offenders if they can be supported into this reduction in offending behaviour as early as possible. Criminogenic environments, including prison, can be counterproductive to this process, as they can entrench patterns of offending behaviour.


Based on a review of the international literature and consultation with Victorian stakeholders, possible options to better address the particular needs and risks of the 18 to 25 age group in the Victorian sentencing process include:

  • introducing sentencing principles in the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) that specifically address young adult offenders, including making the age and/or psychobiological development of an offender a specific sentencing consideration;
  • introducing changes to community-based sentencing options for young adult offenders, such as a specialist approach to engaging with, and making programs available to, young adult offenders on non-custodial orders. This could be achieved through making changes to the existing CCO or by allowing young adult offenders access to non-custodial options available under the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic);
  • expanding the availability and/or scope of dual track to offenders aged 21 to 25;
  • introducing or extending units or facilities specifically for young adult offenders within the adult correctional system; and/or
  • introducing a specialist young adult court or a specialist list to address the needs of young adult offenders at sentencing.
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