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 Child in Handcuffs

Overview

The age of criminal responsibility (ACR) refers to the minimum age that a child can be prosecuted and punished by law for an offence. This POSTnote discusses the current ACR in the UK in the context of relevant evidence from neuroscience, psychology and criminology.

The UN Committee on the Rights of Child has declared that an ACR of younger than 12 years is not internationally acceptable. In Scotland the ACR is currently 8 years but a Bill has been passed to raise it to 12 years. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the ACR is 10 years. A Private Member’s Bill to raise it to 12 years is currently being discussed in the House of Lords.

Recent advances in brain scanning techniques have shown that the 10-year-old brain is developmentally immature and goes through significant changes during adolescence. Adolescents are particularly prone to risk taking behaviours which they often grow out of later in life. There is evidence that criminalising children does not reduce future offending behaviour but can be harmful. Many children who come into contact with the Criminal Justice System are victims of crime themselves, and have mental health, communication and learning difficulties. There are concerns that they are often unable to participate effectively in their criminal trials.

There is also a view that children should be held accountable for offending behaviour. Alternative ways of managing children in conflict with the law are discussed. Early intervention is seen as key to reducing child crime, and welfare laws can be used to deprive children of their liberty when there are issues of risk.

Key Points

  • The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is the lowest in Europe. 
  • In England, Wales and Northern Ireland it is 10 years old, which contravenes international juvenile justice standards. 
  • In Scotland a Bill has been raised to increase the age from 8 to 12, but there is resistance to change elsewhere in the UK.  
  • An age of criminal responsibility of 10 years is seen as arbitrary and not evidence-based. It is also out of step with other legal age limits for children. 
  • Research shows that 10-year-old children are immature in terms of moral and brain development. 
  • Criminalising children adversely affects their future prospects and makes them more likely to reoffend as adults. 

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (University College London, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience)*

Dr Anne-Lise Goddings (University College London, Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health)

Dr Eileen Vizard (University College London, Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health)*

Dr Enys Delmage (University of Nottingham)*

Dr Richard Church (Cygnet Health Care, Adolescent Forensic Psychiatry Special Interest Group, Royal College of Psychiatrists)

Dr Tim Bateman (University of Bedfordshire)*

Professor Barry Goldson (University of Liverpool)*

Caroline Adams (Sussex Police, Staff Officer for National Children & Young Persons Portfolio)*

Professor Antony Duff (University of Stirling)

Professor Heather Keating (University of Sussex, Sussex Law School)*

Jodie Blackstock (Justice)*

Ali Wigzell (Standing Committee for Youth Justice)

Association of Directors of Children’s Services

Children’s Commissioner for England

NHS England*

Law Commission of England and Wales*

Youth Justice Board for England and Wales*

Department of Health and Social Care*

Ministry of Justice*

Criminal Bar Association*

Adolescent Forensic Psychiatry Special Interest Group, Royal College of Psychiatrists*

National Association of Youth Justice

*Denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers for the briefing.


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