‘Why I believe ten is too young to be a criminal’

Casting a shadow: are inmates at young offenders’ institutions damaged for life?
by Paola Uccellari

The director of the Children's Rights Alliance for England, Paola is a lawyer who left the business world to campaign for human rights. She also has ambitions to be a stand-up comedian.

In spite of advice from experts, campaigners and the United Nations, politicians in England refuse to change the age of criminal responsibility. Does this just create more victims?

Children of almost any age can do things which would normally be a crime, but at what age should children first face criminal responsibility for their actions?

Different countries take very different views of when children should be treated as criminals when they break the law: seven in Thailand; 12 in Canada; 13 in France and Greece; 14 in Germany, Italy and China; 15 in Denmark, Tanzania and Iceland; 16 in Portugal and Argentina; and 18 in Brazil, Luxembourg and Belgium (for most offences).

By settling on ten, England has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world. This means – illogically – that children too young to buy a pet (you have to be 12) or to open a bank account without their parent’s consent (you have to be 16) can be arrested and held at a police station, get a criminal record, and potentially be locked up.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a human rights agreement which should act as a safety net, by giving important rights to children all over the world. According to the Convention, there should be a minimum age under which children cannot be treated as criminals. It does not spell out what that age should be, but the UN has told our government several times that ten is too young. Experts and children’s organisations share the view that children should not be criminalised at ten, and I agree.

Punishment is often seen as a deterrent. But this does not work for children. Research shows that the more children get caught up in the criminal justice system, the more harm is done to them and the more likely they are to return to crime. Being labelled a criminal can damage children’s long-term opportunities, including their education and the chance of getting a good job. It can also cut children off from family and friends. This makes it more difficult for children to have a fresh start.

I do not believe that children should be able to do whatever they like; children need to understand and take responsibility for their behaviour, and make amends for any offences they commit wherever possible. But when a child is involved in a crime it often indicates a problem in their life: for example poverty, family problems, educational difficulties, or mental health issues. Punishment does not cure these problems – far from it – and can make things worse. Instead, children should be helped – by their family, school, and specialists – to address why they have committed a criminal act, to understand the consequences, and to stop the behaviour before they get into trouble again.

The government does not believe our age of criminal responsibility is too low, and has said they will not change it. However, it is time to admit that understanding increases with age. We should treat children differently from adults, and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

This week CRAE publishes a report on the state of children’s rights in the UK.

You Decide

  1. Is ten too young to be held fully responsible for criminal actions?

Activities

  1. Hold a class debate: include a representative of the rights of child criminals and a representative of victims’ charities.

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