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Age of Criminal Responsibility

Comment 21st July 2010

Age of Criminal Responsibility

My own view, but based on experience of working with both young and adult offenders since 1978, is that the age of criminal responsibility is set at too young an age in England and Wales. My proposal is that it should be raised to the European average of 15 years.

There are a number of reasons for my proposal – these include:

(i) offending amongst children and young people, and particularly those under the age of 15, can generally be attributed to some failing in the adult world (poor parenting, poverty, an inability to match a service to a need) but it is the individual child / young person who is asked to accept responsibility for that failing

(ii) the vast majority of those entering the youth justice system do so on only one occasion but they still have a criminal record as a consequence – this can have lifelong consequences when certain types of employment are applied for or when visits to other countries are planned – this will be a disproportionate response to what is generally nuisance behaviour

(iii) offending during adolescence is not "unusual behaviour" and while the behaviour needs to be challenged and the young person be encouraged to learn from the experience it should not be taken as an indicator necessarily of them being likely to become a "career criminal" and a concern for those responsible for public protection

(iv) it is positive experiences which have the greatest influence on the development of  a child / young person but as we know a very significant percentage of the youth offending population within any local authority area do emanate from the most deprived neighbourhoods – the commitment to address and reduce child poverty should if successful see a reduction in the numbers of children enterign the youth justice system

(v) the increasing confidence, as expressed by the Coalition, in the use of restorative processes to ensure accountability while finding constructive solutions far more likely to be owned by the young person, as they will have been a direct participant in the process, seems a good way forward and as an approach does not need to be age specific. The use of Family Group Conferencing to develop strategies to prevent a child / young person needing to become "looked after" has proved successful as a diversionary measure

(vi) those with long memories will recall that the Child and Young Persons Act 1969 included a clause which would have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 14 but this part of the Act was not enacted when in 1970 there was a change in administration which led to a contrary approach to the then juvenile justice system,. The principle of Doli Incapax was long standing until its abolition by the Crime and Disorder Act, this reflected the well held view that children under 14 were less likely to be able to form "mens rea" than theur older counterparts       

Why does this matter?

The idea is important as it is allied to the principles associated with equality.

If i was still a practitioner I would be visiting the same neighbourhoods that I was doing in the 1970s.

The youth justicesystem is primarily having to manage the "have nots" in our society.

The Coalition have spoken of "fairness" and the position on the age of criminal responsibility means that those least able to manage themselves are being expected to face the same consewquences as those who can be reasonably expect to be held accountable

As a society we know all too well what we could do to reduce youth offending but we do not seem to have the political will to do what research has indicated would be successful.

Let us get behind young people, promote their interests and see the benefits that derives as opposed to having an unhealthy obsession with punishment .   

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