Why ten-year-olds should not be held criminally liable

Over a recent 12-month period, police in England and Wales did just under 60,000 arrests of children. Of these cases, which included crimes including theft and antisocial behavior, almost 27,000 ended up in court.

Some of these defendants were only ten years old – the minimum age at which one children can be prosecuted and punishable by law for a crime in those countries. IN Ireland and Scotland it is 12, while it is in Sweden and Denmark it’s 15.

The age of criminal responsibility is almost never discussed by mainstream media or politicians in the UK. When it is, the debate often goes hand in hand with reference to child murder. But the rarity of these shocking and sad events is seldom mentioned.

One such case, two ten-year-olds killing the toddler James Bulger 1993, is often quoted by those who advocate a low sentence. The argument is that if a child is old enough to behave like an adult and commit a serious crime, then it is old enough to be treated like an adult and a criminal.

But this means that society is willing to treat criminal children differently than other children. While adults perceive childhood as a period of innocence, he claims law professor Julia Fionda, as soon as individual children fail to live up to adults’ perceptions of what children should be like, they lose their “angelic” status and are instead seen as “devils”.

James Bulger’s death also led to the abolition of what is known in legal terms as “doli incapax.

In other words, it was commonly assumed that children under the age of 14 were not criminally liable if they did not understand the seriousness of their error. Doli incapax protected some children involved in minor violations, where the difference between serious error compared to naughty or mischievous may be less clear in some children’s minds.

But that was the doctrine abolished in England and Wales in 1998, leaving a criminal age of ten, the lowest in Europe. This is too young.

To find out what others think, I recently launched one Online survey public opinion on the age of criminal liability in England and Wales. So far, out of more than 200 responses, a clear majority (88%) believe that the age limit should be raised – with the most common age mentioned being 16. The reason given by the participants is usually a belief that this is an age where most children can distinguish right from wrong and have an understanding of the law.


Another reason for raising the age of criminal responsibility is that the most serious crimes are rare and committed by children. The evidence shows that in the year ending March 2020, three of the 187 people (1.6%) convicted of murder in England and Wales were under 16 years of age.

Off around 49,100 proven crimes committed by children that year was the main type of crime (31%) violence against a person.

For legal purposes, the seriousness of a violent crime is measured on a scale ranging from one (least serious) up to eight (serious). Overall just below 140 proven crimes committed by children had the highest gravity score of eight, which only accounts for 0.3%.

Overall, serious violence from children is then registered and the vast majority of crimes committed by children are considered to be less serious.

As I have argued elsewhere, there is also a lack of consistency across the broader criminal and civil law laws of England and Wales. The effective age for most civilian responsibilities (playing the lottery, claiming benefits, voting, buying a pet, sitting on a jury) is 16 years or older.

There is also neuroscientific research which shows that adolescents’ brains predispose them to risk taking behavior and reacting emotionally, without the same ability as adults to control their impulses and consider the long-term consequences.

This reflects what has been observed in general – that there is an increase in criminal behavior in children that peaks in late adolescence, which then decreases throughout adulthood, when, some argue, they “grow out” of crime. Meanwhile, research shows that contact with the criminal justice system can prolong children’s criminal careers rather than restrict them.

There is a recognition of this in “children first” approach to justice, which emphasizes diversion and minimal intervention, and has been adopted as a strategic priority for England and Wales.

There is also a certain willingness to at least look again at the age of criminal responsibility, with a British government review of the subject recommended last year. Given the evidence, and in order to embrace the idea of ​​minimum intervention more fully, it is clear that age should be raised.

Author: Harriet Pierpoint – Associate Professor of Criminology, University of South Wales The conversation

Source: sn.dk





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