Let's be grown up about the age of criminal responsibility

Linda Jack
Thursday, April 24, 2014

The news last week that Lord Tom McNally, former justice minister and current chair of the YJB, was making the case for raising the age of criminal responsibility, came as music to my ears. Raising the age from 10 to 12 would at least bring us into line with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommendation, made as long ago as 2007,  that state parties raise their age of criminal responsibility to 12 as "an absolute minimum". But, as Tom knows, current Liberal Democrat policy is in fact to raise the age to 14, which would bring us in line with most European countries – instead of having the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Western Europe.

The argument for retaining the current age at 10 is often along the lines that at that age children know the difference between right and wrong. But criminal responsibility is about more than just knowing the difference, it is also about the moral understanding. This develops in parallel with the ability to think abstractly, so is unlikely to be present until a child reaches their teenage years.  So, as a society we have decided that a child is not mature enough to have sex until they are 16, drive until they are 17, buy alcohol or vote until they are 18, but mature enough to be convicted of a crime when they are 10.

As our understanding of how the brain develops has grown, so the fact that our justice system still regards a child as criminally responsible at 10 is anathema. It is also the reasons we lock up so many of our children, 100 times as many, for example, as Finland. Where countries like Finland differ in their approach is in seeing a child’s behaviour as a welfare rather than criminal justice issue. Examining what is causing the child’s behaviour and addressing those causes – be it educational difficulties, mental health needs or abuse and neglect.  

Sadly, so much criminal justice policy is developed with one eye on the public – few political leaders have the courage to lead the debate rather than shape it. The tragedy is that such an approach is not only further damaging to the children who end up caught in the criminal justice system, often scarred for life by it, but it harms all of us. We all end up paying for this mistake economically and socially. An approach that seeks to blame the child, or the parents, but rarely the state, misses a crucial element of the big picture.

How is it that such a high percentage of young offenders have been in the care system, have suffered physical and sexual abuse, have learning difficulties, or mental health conditions? Retaining the criminal age of responsibility at 10 is a way of absolving us all of our collective responsibility. So to Tom McNally I would say, please, take that first step by arguing for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 12, but don’t stop there. Let’s demonstrate the marks of a more grown-up nation and ultimately raise it to 14, while giving more attention to the welfare needs of those children who we currently find it easier to blame or ignore.

Linda Jack is a member of the Parliamentary Policy Committee for Education, Young People and Families, and former member of the Federal Policy Committee