What the age of criminal responsibility tells us about our attitude to children

We are not, on the whole, particularly child-centric in this country. Anyone with young children who has attempted to eat in a restaurant after 6pm knows this. It is often preferable to beat a hasty retreat rather than face the glares of fellow diners as your toddler runs around the table legs and your six-year old whizzes toy cars across the table. I’ve even been in a National Trust café where we were told off for ‘letting’ my friend’s son get cake crumbs on the floor.

It’s not much of a surprise then that we have one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility for children in Europe and resoundingly trump even Algeria (13), Uzbekistan (15) and DR Congo (18).   A report by the Royal Society suggests that at 10 the age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could be ‘unreasonably low’.

The Society's conclusion is based on assessments carried out by a panel of scientists, lawyers and ethicists in how developments in neuroscience should inform the law.  The chair of the panel, Nicholas Mackintosh, said psychologists had shown adolescents are not wholly responsible individuals and that the brain continued to develop until around the age of 20.

Now I don’t imagine anyone is going to argue that we should raise the age from 10 to 20, and they’d have a hard job on their hands if they did, but it set me thinking about the seemingly arbitrary nature of the various ages at which the state says you can legally do things. For example, I’ve always thought it a bit odd that you can have sex at 16 but you can’t vote until you are 18 – surely the need to act responsibly in the former is far greater than the latter?

How is it that we don’t allow children to purchase lottery tickets until they are 16, but they can be held criminally responsible at 10?  Why do we think they aren’t responsible enough to get a tattoo until they’re 18, but they are responsible for criminal acts at 10?  And why aren’t children ready to leave school and go out into the world until age 16 but they can be tried as adults at 10?

I’m not suggesting children don’t know right from wrong by the age of 10, but there is a big difference between knowing it and being able to abide by it.  Life isn’t black and white and children of that age obviously can’t make judgements in the way adults can.  They may also be particularly susceptible to peer pressure or goading from older children and take a game or dare too far to impress.

I can only assume that having nearly the lowest age of consent I could find (except for bastions of democracy like Iran and Nigeria) is a tenacious hangover from the Victorian attitude that children should be seen and not heard and certainly not have any rights (apart from the right to sweep chimneys).

Whatever the cause, there is a hardening attitude among adults towards young people.  At the end of 2008, a poll by children’s charity Barnardo’s found that 49% of adults think children pose an increasing danger to society and 54% say young people are ‘beginning to behave like animals’.  It ran a disturbing advertising campaign warning that society is demonising children and aiming to remind us “the children we chastise, fear, expel, despise and lock up are still children”.

While it is true that children aged 10 to 17 are far more likely to be arrested than adults, fear of the young is surely exaggerated.  Fewer than 3% of this age group are in the criminal justice system and only a tiny minority are in custody.  But never mind, nasty stories sell more papers and get more website hits than a nice one, so we’ll run with the (utterly meaningless) Over half of young people claim to know how to obtain a knife’.  Such negative headlines ignore their impact on young people themselves who, let’s not forget, are still in their formative years.

Research by the National Children’s Bureau in 2009 found young people were angry and resentful about the way they are often portrayed.  It should come as no surprise that some choose to play up to their assigned role.  As one has put it “If we are getting told we are bad all the time, then we will just do something to be bad.  There’s no point in getting the blame for something unless you’ve actually done it”

In 2010 the Scottish government confirmed it would rise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12.  In making the announcement, justice minister Kenny MacAskill said:


“The evidence shows prosecution at an early age increases the chance of reoffending, so this change is about preventing crime.  [It] does not mean any eight to 11-year-olds will be let off.  Rather they will be held to account in a way that is appropriate for their stage of development”.


The evidence bears this out:  studies show 68% of young children given a community sentence order go on to reoffend.  According to Barnardo’s, a third of children under 15 who are in custody were 10 or 11 when they were first convicted.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this ‘conveyer belt of crime’ is entrenching the problem, not alleviating it.

The calls are growing louder to raise the age of criminal responsibility.  The Royal Society joins, among others, Barnardo’s, the children commissioner for England, a former chief of the Youth Justice Board and the Prison Reform Trust.  But the government has repeatedly insisted this is ‘not the answer’ and the focus should be on addressing the causes of offending by children.

Nobody is going to argue with that, least of all me.  If you’ll excuse the expression, it’s a no-brainer that we have to find a way of tackling the poverty, lack of opportunity and bad parenting that are probably largely responsible for driving any child into a life of crime.  Not that the government seems to be doing much on that front either.

It’s probably not the best time to argue that we should increase the age to 12 to align ourselves with the rest of Europe.  But we should.  We should also learn to love our children (and not just our own).  As one tweeter put it:


“The British attitude towards children [seems to regard them] as both brutes from birth needing to be tamed, and morally responsible for that brutishness.”


Whatever the cause, it is a thoroughly odd and extremely counterproductive way of thinking .  Personally, I blame the parents.

Posted in: Justice system

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