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3. Children in Conflict with the Law

pg 8 of 12

Age of criminal responsibility

bulletThe Convention on the Rights of the Child calls for nations to establish a minimum age

Quote from Convention of the Rights of the Child

But the convention does not set a specific age, and it varies greatly. 

bulletInternational standards, such as the Beijing Rules for Juvenile Justice, recommend that the age of criminal responsibility be based on emotional, mental and intellectual maturity and that it not be fixed too low. 

bulletThe Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors countries’ implementation of the convention, has recommended that the age be guided by the best interests of the child. 

bulletIn the US, the age of criminal responsibility is established by state law. Only 13 states have set minimum ages, which range from six to 12. Most states rely on common law, which holds that from age seven to age 14 children cannot be presumed to bear responsibility but can be held responsible. 

bulletIn Japan, offenders below age 20 are tried in a family court, rather than in the criminal court system. In all Scandinavian countries, the age of criminal responsibility is 15, and adolescents under 18 are subject to a system of justice that is geared mostly towards social services, with incarceration as the last resort.  As of April 1997, only 15 juveniles were serving a prison sentence in Sweden. 

bulletIn China, children from 14 to 18 are dealt with by the juvenile justice system and may be sentenced to life imprisonment for particularly serious crimes. 

bulletIn most countries of Latin America, the reform of juvenile justice legislation is under way. As a result, the age of adult criminal responsibility has been raised to 18 in Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Children from 12 to 18 are held responsible under a system of juvenile justice. 

bulletIn most European countries, the age of adult criminal responsibility is between 13 and 16.  In Ireland it is 12.

bulletThe wide variation in the age of criminal responsibility reflects a lack of international consensus. The number of countries with low ages indicates that many juvenile justice systems do not adequately consider the child’s best interests. 


Daily Mail (London), September 22, 2006

Bulger mother’s fury at call to lift crime age to 14

bulletTHE MOTHER of murdered toddler James Bulger voiced outrage last night over proposals to raise the age of criminal responsibility from ten to 14.  A senior government adviser on youth crime has claimed thousands of young teenage offenders should be spared jail and offered counselling instead.

bulletBut Jamie Bulger’s mother Denise Fergus, whose two-year-old son was abducted and murdered by two 10-year-olds, called the plan a “disaster”.

bulletThe softly-softly approach to youth crime is set out in a study published today by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. It is written by Rob Allen, a member of the Youth Justice Board who has provided expert advice to four Home Secretaries.

bulletMr Allen argues that Britain has a far younger age of criminal responsibility than most other Western countries, and that children aged 10 to 14 accused of crimes should be dealt with by family courts instead of magistrates and crown courts.

bulletThe scheme would mean some of Britain’s most notorious offenders would have escaped public trial and long custodial sentences. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson both served eight years in custody for killing James on Merseyside in 1993.

bulletCurrently children must be 10 in England and Wales or eight in Scotland to face criminal charges, compared with 14 in Germany, Japan and Russia and 15 in Italy.

bulletMr Allen’s report, entitled ‘From Punishment to Problem Solving’, calls for a move away from the world of ‘cops, courts and corrections’ towards an emphasis on meeting the health, educational and family difficulties which lie behind offending.

Mrs Fergus said, however:

Quote from Mrs Fergus

The Home Office said last night that while custody should always be a “last resort” for young offenders, there were currently no plans to review the age of criminal responsibility.

Boy makes living washing cars

Age of criminal responsibility is just one variable influencing how juveniles are treated by justice systems. Other variables include whether there is a separate juvenile law based on child rights; whether a young person is subject to punitive sanctions or only to socio-educational measures; and whether the country has separate court systems and jails for young people. A juvenile justice system should provide legal protections and an objective standard for treatment. In its absence, young people may be handled by the adult criminal justice system or be held in ‘protective’ custody, where they have no legal protections and may face arbitrary or harsh treatment.

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