The youth justice system

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What is the youth justice system?

If you are under 18 years old (between 10 – 17yrs old) and find yourself in trouble with the police for something, you may not have to go to court. The law recognises the importance of protecting young people and keeping them out of the court system where it’s appropriate. This is because young people who don’t go through the court system are often more accountable for their actions and less likely to commit other crimes in the future. 

The laws which explains all the options in South Australia is the Young Offenders Act 1993 . The Act establishes a system of warnings, formal cautions  and family conferences.  Generally, you are required to attend court only as a last resort and for very serious crimes or if you have been in trouble with the police before.

No matter what, 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!

Who is covered under the youth justice system?

The Act covers young people aged between who are at least 10 and under 18 at the time of the alleged crime.

What crimes are covered under the youth justice system?

The police can give you a informal caution, a formal caution or refer you to a family conference for a minor offence. Whether the offence is minor depends on what the police officers thinks, as well as:

  • how likely you are to commit another crime
  • your character
  • the damage your actions have done

For example, if you have committed a violent crime, then it is not very likely you will be able to get a caution or go to conference.  You will probably have to go to court for that.

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.


Informal Cautions

If you admit to something that is not very  serious and the police officer feels that no other formal action is required, you can get an informal caution (sometimes called a warning).  If you get an informal caution, the police can’t later take action against you for the same crime. The informal caution you receive will not go on your record.

However, the police will send a ‘Notice to Guardian of Informal Police Caution’ to your parents or guardian..  

Formal Cautions

Even if you what you admit to doing is not very serious, the police may choose to give you a formal caution if they think an informal caution is inappropriate in the circumstances.

How do Police give you a formal caution?

Before giving you a formal caution, the officer must explain to you:

  • the nature of the offence and how they think it has occurred;
  • that you are allowed to have a lawyer if you want; and
  • that you are allowed to have the offence dealt with by a court instead if you want.

Police will give a formal caution at the police station. The meeting at the police station will be with yourself, the police officer and your parent or guardian.

During the meeting the police officer must explain what a formal caution is and that a formal caution is put on your official record. When you receive a formal caution you will get it in writing and you have to sign it to acknowledge you understand. If you receive a formal warning the Police officer can give a victim of your actions your identity if they ask for it.  

Formal Undertakings

As part of the formal caution, the police may also require you to promise to do something. This is called a formal undertaking. They might require you to do one of the following:

  • pay compensation to the victim of the offence;
  • carry out up to 75 hours of community service work;
  • apologise to the victim (often in writing);
  • anything else that is appropriate in the circumstances

Your parents or guardian can get involved in the discussions about any undertakings the police propose before you agree to anything. .The undertaking must be signed by you, a representative of the Commissioner of Police, and if possible your parents or guardians.

What happens after I receive a formal caution?

If you do everything that the Police require, including any formal undertakings, then the police cannot take any other action against you for that offence.

Do formal cautions affect my criminal record?

The police will keep an official record of a formal caution. If you do end up going to court for an offence under the Youth Justice Act, a formal caution can be used as evidence of the offence you were cautioned for. However, after you turn 18 a formal caution will not be able to be brought up as evidence.

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.

Family Conferences

The police also have the power to request that you attend a ‘Family Conference’. However, before doing so, the police must explain to you:

  • the nature of the offence and how they think it has occurred;
  • that you are allowed to have a lawyer if you want; and
  • that you are allowed to have the offence dealt with by a court instead if you want.

A Family Conference is an alternative to going to court. The conference is designed to allow everyone impacted by your actions and involved in your life to have discuss the offence. Some of the people who might come include yourself, your family and the victim of your actions. Ultimately, together you will come up with a way that the damage from your actions can be made up for.

How is a Family conference set up?

Someone who is known as a ’Youth Justice Co-ordinator’ will set up a time and place for the conference. The meeting may take place at a variety of locations such as a school, community centre or police station. You will get a notice letting you know all of these details. The people who are allowed to attend the conference include:

  • yourself
  • your parents (or guardians)
  • your relatives or any other people who have a close association with you
  • the victim
  • the victim’s parents (or guardians)
  • relatives of the victim or any other person who is close to them,  
  • a representative of the Commissioner of Police
  • anyone else the Youth Justice Co-ordinator thinks it is appropriate to invite

You can also have a lawyer present to at the conference to advise you at any stage during the conference. however the lawyer can’t speak on your behalf.

Reaching a decision at the conference

The Conference will aim to reach an outcome that is a compromise between all of the parties. The Family Conference has power to require you to:

  • apologise to the victim, either in writing or orally;
  • pay compensation to the victim;
  • carry out up to 300 hours community service work;
  • receive a formal caution against further offending;
  • do anything else appropriate under the circumstances to prevent re-offending

Any decisions made during the conference will only be final if the offender and the police representative agree with the decision. If a decision cannot be reached during the conference, then the matter will go to court and the courts will reach a decision.

If you attend a Conference and perform all the promises that you made at it, you cannot be charged for the same offence in court.

If you don’t go the conference or fails to comply with what is required at the conference, then a police officer may charge you and you may have to go to court.

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.

Going to court

If what has happened is very serious than you may be charged with an offence and have to go to court. It is also likely that you will have to go to court if you have:

  • re-offended (you have committed a second offence after you have already received a first warning or undertaking)
  • denied you committed the offence
  • failed to attend your Family conference
  • failed to complete any requirements of undertakings

If you have to go to court than you will normally go to a special court, called a Youth Court. Youth Courts are very similar to adult courts. However, at a Youth Court only those people who are relevant to the case will be allowed in, and any publications or media reporting about your case cannot identify you.. Any information or reporting that may identify the victim (without their consent) is also not allowed in the Youth Court.

What are the sort of things that the Youth Court can make me do?

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

When choosing what penalty to give you the Court will take look at a number of things to do with crime including;

  • the circumstances you were in when it happened
  • your character, age, mental and physical health and

if you already have a criminal record (previous offence).

The court will also look at whether your actions caused any damage and what needs to happen to make sure that the community feels safe. Below we have given you a brief outline of some of things the court can make you do. When looking at them remember that the court can choose one or a combination of the penalties.

Referral to police or family conference

The Youth Court might decide to refer you back to the police to get a formal police caution or to family conference, if they think this will be more appropriate than a different penalty.


A fine is when the Court orders you to pay a certain amount of money because you have committed an offence. The maximum fine the Youth Court can give you is $2500 per offence.

Before making you pay any money, the Court will normally look at whether you have a job, how much money you have and what amount you can afford to pay.

Give money to the victim

The Youth Court might also order you to pay money to your victim. These sorts of orders might include:

  • Costs – this is when the victim has been hurt in some way and you need to pay for what they have had to do to get better (an example is if they have had any medical expenses)
  • Restitution – when you pay to get someone back into the position they were in before your actions (for example if you graffiti a wall you will need to pay someone to paint over it)
  • Compensation – when you give some money for the trouble you have caused someone (for example giving them money for the time they lost being hurt by your actions)

Community service order

A community service order involves the young person doing unpaid work for the community. This will normally be for a local charity or community organisation, if these organisations have a place for you. Community service work might involve helping sick, elderly or physically disabled people.

The Youth Court can order you to do community service for a period of up to 500 hours, for no longer than 18 months.

If you don’t do the work the court has told you to do, then you will have to go back to Court where they may increase the number of hours of community service you have to do. Alternatively, the court may cancel your community service and give you a fine or something more serious such as detention.

Court ordered obligations

The Court may decide that requiring you to complete certain obligations is most appropriate. This is basically an agreement between you and the Court that you will follow certain conditions made by the Court. This agreement can be for up to 3 years. Some examples of conditions that the court might require you to follow are that you have to be home every night by 7pm (curfew), go to school for a certain number of days a year or live where the Court tells you to live. The court may also get you to participate in different courses, such as anger management or drug and alcohol counselling.

If you don’t follow all of the conditions or are brought back before the Court for getting in trouble, you could be fined up to $2500 or sentenced to detention for 6 months, or both.

Delayed detention

Sometimes the Court will sentence you to a ‘suspended’ detention order. This means that although the Court has ordered you to spend time in a youth training centre, the Court has delayed this from happening in order to allow you to show the Court that you are capable of good behaviour and staying out of trouble. You will be able to live within the community and won’t have to live in detention. If this happens you will have to follow court ordered obligations (talked about above). This means you may have to follow conditions on going to school, not drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs, being home every night by a certain time (curfew), or attending medical, mental or drug counselling.

To get a delayed detention order is a very serious thing and the police will strictly enforce and monitor your order. If you break any of the conditions of your agreement or are caught doing something else by the police, the Court might decide to send you to detention for the entire time they were originally going to send you for.


To get a detention order you must have done something very serious or had many chances with the Court to stay out of trouble. If the Court decides that you’ve done something so serious that none of the other penalties should apply, the Court can detain you in a youth training centre for a maximum period of three years. Alternatively, the Court can give you home detention for a maximum period of six months.

While in detention at home or at a youth training centre, you may be required to attend school, play sports or attend programs on alcohol, drugs, or anger management.

Licence Disqualification

The Court might also disqualify your drivers’ licence. If you do not hold a current drivers licence, then this may mean you are prevented from getting one for a period of time.

Penalty Options in the District Court and the Supreme Court

For more serious crimes, the case will be decided by the District or the Supreme Court.  Many of the sentencing options available to the Youth Court are also available to the District and Supreme Court.

For really serious offences the Court may treat you as an adult, with the full range of adult penalties open to the court, including imprisonment.

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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