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A criminal age of responsibility Sep 28

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies wants the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14. A similar proposal to raise it to 12 was passed into LibDem policy at a conference a couple of years ago. (Needless to say, this was “slammed” by tough-as-old-boots Labour MPs.)

I’m not sure where I stand on this. My woolly liberal instinct says that of course the age should be higher. I’m certain that putting kids in adult prisons is just asking for trouble, but that’s a separate issue to the age at which people are expected to take responsibility for their actions. The Chief Executive of the Children’s Society is quoted by the BBC:

“It is staggering that children as young as 10 can be placed in custody for their actions yet must wait until 18 to be considered mature enough to vote.”

I think it’s fair to argue that someone could be expected to knowing that robbing, say, is against the law before being capable of weighing up the nuances (such as they are these days) of political debate. But is there really eight years difference between the two?

I’m pretty sure I knew “right from wrong”, to use the standard phrase, by the time I was 11, but I had a good upbringing and (not to brag) an IQ tending towards genius, so I wasn’t exactly representative of my age group. If someone that age commits a crime, it seems reasonable that society should take action – indeed, that goes for younger children too – but that doesn’t have to mean prosecution. If a child has been badly brought up and doesn’t understand or respect the rule of law, should they be held account for that, or should their parents? It’s obviously more important to rescue kids from a cycle of crime than to punish them, but at what age should they be hauled up in court? It’s always going to be an arbitrary dividing line.

The Home Office said: “The current age of criminal responsibility allows us to intervene earlier to prevent offending and to help young people develop a sense of personal responsibility for their misbehaviour.”

That doesn’t sound unreasonable, but it all hinges on what they mean by “intervene”, and whether a child really needs to have passed the age of criminal responsibility in order for intervention to happen.

One thing that bothers me is the principle on which the age is supposedly set. From the BBC article:

In 1997, the government lowered the age children were presumed to know the difference between right and wrong from 14 to 10.

Ignorance of the law is considered no excuse for adults (not the fairest rule, but necessary for the criminal justice system to function). Is the law saying that 10 is the age at which ignorance of the law creases to be an excuse? I find it hard enough keeping up with new laws – should a 12-year-old really be expected to know that sell a grey squirrel is a criminal offence (hat-tip: F&M). When we talk about “right and wrong”, we tend to mean Ten Commandments style absolutes: murder, rape and theft are bad; truth, just and the American Way are good. So while it is reasonable to expect a 12-year-old to know that it’s wrong to mug someone for their mobile phone, should they be expected to know not to buy Brazil nuts from Iran, that they mustn’t impersonate a traffic warden, or even that they shouldn’t download music illegally from teh internets?

Knowing the difference between right and wrong is not the same thing as knowing the difference between lawful and unlawful. When dealing with children, should the law try to differentiate?

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