Criminalising ten-year-olds is no way to run a justice system

Is this helping? Shutterstock

At age ten, children in England, Northern Ireland and Wales can be found guilty of a criminal offence. They can face trial and be placed in detention.

We don’t allow children of ten to hold a driver’s licence or get married or travel on a plane unaccompanied – we don’t even allow them to be left at home alone. Yet we treat them as responsible enough for their own actions – and indeed as significantly au fait with the law – to face court if they commit a crime.

Children of this age cannot consent to sex – for this you have to be 16. Yet our criminal laws mean that children from age ten upwards can be charged with a sexual offence. There is something very contradictory here.

The age of criminal responsibility in England, Northern Ireland and Wales is well below the average of other countries in the European Union – which is 14. In the Netherlands children cannot be charged with an offence below the age of 12. In France it is 13, in Sweden it is 15. In Belgium the age of criminal responsibility is 18.

Rare cases shouldn’t set the age

While the youth justice system operates separately from the adult criminal justice system, its processes largely mirror it. The consequences for a young person when they enter the criminal justice system mirror those of adults too.

In countries with a higher age of criminal responsibility, young people whose behaviour is causing concern are dealt with in the child protection and welfare system. This approach reflects wider social and cultural attitudes towards children and young people. The same goes for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Bulger case has shaped how we treat child criminals. PA

Those who resist calls to raise the age invariably point towards the case of James Bulger, the toddler murdered by two ten-year-old boys in 1993. The crime provoked a strong public reaction and the boys eventually became the youngest convicted murders in modern English history. But the UK government was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights over the way it treated these young defendants.

While evoking understandable concern, incidents as serious as the Bulger murder are extremely rare. And where they do occur they are invariably symptomatic of deeper problems and need. They should not form the basis for setting the age of criminal responsibility.

Out and staying out

International evidence shows that offending by young people is best addressed by keeping them out of the criminal justice system. Once inside it, there are all kinds of negative consequences – not least being labelled a “young offender”.

What’s more, the range of circumstances under which a criminal record can be disclosed is widening and it is possible for criminal records acquired as a juvenile to follow a person for the rest of their life.

This has profound implications for a young person’s educational opportunities and employment prospects. We know that many of the young people that are processed through the youth justice system already suffer the consequences of this.

Groups are emerging to call for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised and I would argue that 16 is more in line with other responsibilities.

Suggesting that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised does not mean ignoring behaviours of concern. It means precisely the opposite. Rather than labelling and punishing children and young people, support should be provided to help them and their families.