The youth justice system

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What is the youth justice system?

In the ACT, if you are under the age of 18 and find yourself in trouble with the police for committing a crime, you may or may not have to go to court. The police and legal system in the ACT have a system of warnings, cautions and conferences as well as going to court. This is because the law recognises the importance of protecting children and keeping them out of the court system and saving court as a last resort option.

Generally, you may not have to go to court if you are in trouble for the first time and it is for something less serious. Instead of requiring you to go to court, you may be referred to a restorative justice conference where you and the victim try to come to an agreement in an informal setting. If you are really lucky the police may even choose to give you a warning!

On the other hand, you will probably have to go to court if you have committed a more serious crime. You will also probably have to go to court if you have been in trouble with the police before.

Either way, always keep in mind that your punishment will fit the crime – you’re not going to be sent to jail for getting a parking ticket!

Click on the links to your right to find out more information on this topic. See our page on criminal law for more information.

If you’re 18 or under and you’ve been accused of a crime and want to know what could happen, please contact us here and we can give you free advice and information. Everything you tell us will be kept confidential.


A young person can be given an on-the-spot warning if they have committed, or are believed to have committed, a minor offence. Some examples are if you are caught drinking in public or swearing. You are most likely to receive a warning if you have not committed a crime before or been given a warning or caution.


A caution is a formal warning. It is more serious than a warning.

  • In deciding whether to give you a formal caution or to charge you with an offence, the police officer will consider:
  • your criminal history;
  • your age and maturity; and
  • your parents’ input.

How are cautions given?

Police give formal cautions at their discretion. This means they can choose to give you an immediate caution or perhaps in an interview with your parents or guardian at a later time.

How do cautions affect my criminal record?

If a formal caution is given to you, the police officer must record it. This should not become part of your criminal history. But it may become part of your police record. If you are under 25 and have a question about cautions and criminal records/history, please contact us here.

Restorative justice conferences

A restorative justice conference (also known as youth justice conference or family group conference) is a meeting where people involved in an offence (including the young offender, victim and support people) talk about the offence and make decisions about how the young offender can make up for what they did. If you were between the ages of 10 and 17 when you have been charged this conference can apply to you.

For example, the people at the conference might agree that you do community service, attend a rehabilitation program or write an apology to the victim. These types of punishments are intended to promote the development of the young offender, to be a less restrictive option that is appropriate and to help the young offender accept responsibility for their offence.

Eligibility for the conference

You can attend a restorative justice conference if:

  • You are a young offender and have committed a less serious offence;
  • You have accepted responsibility;
  • You were at least 10 years old when the offence occurred;
  • You are capable of agreeing to restorative justice; and
  • You agree to be part of restorative justice.

Note: The victim must also agree to be involved for this system to work.

You can be referred to restorative youth justice by:

  • Police
  • Director-General (restorative justice) or (children and young people)
  • Director of Public Prosecutions
  • Magistrates Court (this includes the Childrens Court) or the Supreme Court.

Depending who refers you, restorative justice can occur after you have been cautioned, before the end of a court proceeding or after the court has made a sentence. If you are to be referred to restorative justice, the purpose and nature of the system must be explained to you. When deciding if your matter should be dealt with through a restorative justice conference, the Director-General will consider:

  • The nature of the offence, including the level of harm caused or violence involved;
  • How appropriate it is at your current stage in the justice process;
  • Any power imbalances between you and the victim; and
  • The physical and psychological effect restorative justice may have on the participants.

The conference

The conference is run by a convenor that can run the conference in a way they think is suitable for the people attending, but they must help the participants to reach an agreement.

Before the conference takes place, the convener must speak to you and everyone else involved. This is to explain the purpose of the conference, who may be present in the conference and make clear that you can refuse to continue to be part of the conference at any time.

People allowed at the conference are:

  • The offender;
  • The victim;
  • The police officer involved; and
  • Parents or family members.

The purpose of the conference is to reach an agreement that aims to repair any harm caused by the offence. This can include an apology, voluntary community work or a fine to be paid. The agreement must be fair and, in the opinion of both you (the offender) and the victim, reasonably able to be carried out. The agreement should be for no longer than 6 months and it starts of the date the agreement is made, unless it is agreed to start on a later date.

How does restorative justice affect a young person’s record?

If an offence is referred for restorative justice, the process must be recorded. The police or court must keep a record of:

  • The circumstances in which the referral for a conference were made
  • The progress of restorative justice; and
  • The outcome.

The police or court must also keep a record of the agreement reached in the conference. While there is a database that holds all the results of restorative justice conferences, your identity is not made known to those who view it.

If you reach an agreement under the restorative justice conference, the Court cannot continue to charge you with an offence. However the conference may still show up on your record.

If you’re 18 or under and you’ve been accused of a crime and want to know what could happen, you can contact us here, and we can give you free advice and information. Everything you tell us will be kept confidential.

What matters are heard before the Children’s Court?

The Children’s Court has the power to hear any of the following cases:

  • A criminal proceeding that is brought against you if you were under 18 when the crime was said to be committed; and
  • an application for bail for a child; and
  • any proceedings where an adult and child are jointly charged with an offence.

The Children’s Court can’t hear any crime where the punishment is life imprisonment.  That kind of cases will go to the Supreme Court.

If the crime that has been committed carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, the sentence is likely to be issued by the Supreme Court. This is because the Children’s Court do not have the power to issue these types of penalties. The Children’s Court may also pass on a matter for sentencing to the Supreme Court because of the character and history of the child.

If you have been charged with a crime and have been asked to attend Court, we strongly suggest that you seek legal advice to discuss your options. For further information about appropriate legal advice you can contact us here.

What are the penalties of the Children’s Court?

If you are under 18 years old and have been found guilty of a crime by the Children’s Court, you should know about all the different types of penalties (sometimes called ‘sentences’) you could be given.

Remember that when choosing a penalty, the Court must consider options that will best promote your rehabilitation and help you get back on track. They will usually consider the seriousness of your actions and any previous criminal record you have. They will also take into account things like the type of person you are including how mature you are and your family circumstances.

Below is an overview of the Children’s Court penalties. The Court might choose one penalty or a combination of two.

Non-conviction order

The Court may make a non-conviction order. This means that the Court has decided to not convict you. So even though you were found guilty of a crime, it will not show up on your criminal record. This usually only happens when you’re in trouble for doing something less serious, such as littering. Although this means you will not get a conviction, you will still have to sign a good behaviour order which you will have to follow for a maximum of 3 years.

There are two types of non-conviction orders the Court can give you:

1. Dismissal

This means you will not be punished or penalised, in addition to not being convicted. This will usually happen where the Court thinks that it is not appropriate to punish you.

2. Good behaviour order

If the Court finds you guilty of a crime, it might give you a good behaviour order. This means you will have to sign a document which states that you promise to be on good behaviour for a stated period of time.

A good behaviour order can be made with or without a conviction recorded against you. If the good behaviour order is made without a conviction, remember that your punishment is actually a non-conviction order (see above). This means that, although your actions won’t be recorded against you, you might have to agree to conditions such as attending a rehabilitation program.  When there is no conviction the good behaviour order can only last 3 years.

On the other hand, if the Court does decide to convict you and gives you a good behaviour order, you might have to agree to conditions in addition to the ones mentioned above, such as undertaking training, education or performing community service.

If the Court finds that you haven’t been following the conditions, it may give you a warning, add more conditions to the order or even cancel the order and re-sentence you to a more serious penalty for the offence you originally committed


The Magistrate Court may order you to pay a fine of an amount up to a maximum of $2,000. Before making you pay a fine, thise Court will usually consider things like your age, what you have done and whether you have a job or can afford to pay the fine. Keep in mind that if you are not working and have no source of income, it is unlikely that the Court will order you to pay a fine. The idea is that it is you, not your parents or carer, that should be punished!

Non-association and place restriction orders

If you are being sentenced because you have been violent towards somebody and the Court has given you a ‘good behaviour order’ or placed you in periodic detention, they might also make a ‘non-association’ or ‘place restriction’ order on you.

A non-association order requires that you stay away from somebody and do not attempt to contact them in any way (for example by phone, Facebook or in person).

A place restriction order is a direction that you stay a certain number of metres away from a particular place.

Accommodation orders

In addition to any other orders the Court might sentence you to, the Court can make an accommodation order for up to a maximum of 3 years.

This means you will have to live at a place, or with a certain person, as directed by the Court. When deciding with whom or where you live, the Court will take into account things like whether the person or accommodation is suitable and whether they agree for you to live at their place..

If you do not live as directed, you may be brought back to Court where they may find you an alternative penalty and resentence you.

Deferred sentence order (or adjournment)

The court may decide to not sentence you immediately, known as a deferred sentence order. This means that within 12 months you may come back to the Court where they will decide your punishment.  This means that the court has decided to give you some more time before telling you what your penalty is. The court will sometimes do this if they are thinking of imposing a serious penalty, but want to give you another chance to show that you can stay out of trouble.

When the 12 months is over and you have to go back to Court to be sentenced, if you can show the Court that you’ve met all the conditions and have stayed out of trouble, the Court might give you a less serious sentence.  

Imprisonment order

If the Court decides that you’ve committed a very serious crime, it can order that you be imprisoned in a youth justice centre. This must be a last resort and should be for the shortest amount of time as possible.

The Court may place you in detention on either a full-time basis, meaning you will be imprisoned for a set and continued period of time, or part-time basis.

Keep in mind that a sentence of imprisonment is usually only given to young people who have committed a very very very serious crime (think things like armed robbery, sexual assault, serious drug crimes or murder) or who have already had lots of chances to follow good behaviour orders, but keep breaking their conditions. The Court will only make an imprisonment order as a last resort and if none of the other sentencing options are harsh enough. Plus, if you’re under 18, the Court will sentence you to imprisonment for as short a time as possible, depending on how serious your crimes or level of disobedience have been.

While in detention, you may be required to attend school, play sports and attend programs to address any issues you may have with alcohol, drugs, or anger management.

If you’re 18 or under and you’ve been accused of a crime and want to know what could happen, please contact us here and we can give you free advice and information. Everything you tell us will be kept confidential.

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