Monday, 15 March 2010

Sweet Little Sixteen

Last week a debate was raging in the UK about the minimum age for children to be prosecuted in an adult court. Currently it is set at ten. Yes, that's 10. It implies, and its supporters maintain that children aged 10 are fully capable of understanding their actions and their consequences.

This was all kicked off by the recall to prison of a man, then boy aged 10, who was convicted of kidnap and brutal murder of a two year old James Bulger. A terrible crime indeed, with its perpetrators (there were two, both aged ten) duly prosecuted, sentenced, and imprisoned - all in an adult court.

I can't, and won't, go into the discussion on whether the fears raised by this murder, and subsequent tightening of penal policies, were justified or not. Someone else did it much more capably than I ever could. You'd be well advised to read that particular article, here.

What I do want to say, for whatever it's worth, is that holding children of ten (or even 7, or 8, as in Scotland) fully criminally responsible, in the same way proper adults are, and thus tried in the same courts, applying exactly the same rules, is patently wrong on many, many levels.

While I can fully understand James Bulger's family's grief - I wouldn't really blame them if they wished the killers to be hung, drawn, and quartered, either - I don't think even they'd be very happy if their other young ones were tried in a full, adult criminal court for any offences. And surely, when they think back to the time they themselves were ten, they could put their hand on heart and say they were equally mature as they are today, and hence should have been treated as such by the criminal system.

Or, turning the argument on its head somewhat: if children aged ten are equally as mature and responsible as adults, at least enough to be prosecuted and tried in adult courts in the same manner as their parents would be, then surely they are adult and mature enough to be given the right to vote? Or drive a car? Or run their own finances? Hold a full time job? Be drafted into army? Surely any of the things that are currently reserved for adults should also become available to anyone who has reached the age of criminal responsibility.

Somehow I'm sure that Swiss do not allow their seven year olds to vote, or Scots their eight year olds to walk into a bank and open an account.

I know there are calls in this country for voting age to be lowered to sixteen. Maybe it should really be, even if it seems (very) unlikely. But almost in the same breath it is rejected that the age of criminal responsibility be raised to a mere twelve. Twelve!

Yes, for some values of "right" and "wrong" children aged twelve may be able to distinguish between the two. But is it enough to be held fully criminally responsible? Is it not required that a person is also (reasonably) able to fully understand the consequences and implications of their actions? Moreover, is it not necessary to have at least a vague understanding of the laws of the land? Are children aged 7, 8, 10, or even 12, really capable of the latter two? Really, really?

I will bet you my bottom dollar that almost none are. And because of that, and unless we as a society have somehow, quietly, moved from criminal justice as part deterrent, part punishment, and part chance to correct a person, to criminal justice as part punishment, part deterrent, (a large) part revenge, then we should really think twice before throwing anyone, let alone children, behind bars, and throwing away the key.

And if anyone is in need of careful healing it is the youngest who for whatever reason find their way on the other side of the law. I am sure that even James Bulger's family will agree that a great part of what made their boy's killers was what was around them, and most probably their own parents.

So, while kids like James Bulger's killers most certainly need both punishment and help (but much more of the latter), it may be a better idea to extend criminal responsibility for children's actions to their parents. They are, after all, their legal guardians until quite and advanced age. Surely, they can be held responsible for their children becoming murderers, too?

How about then we raise the age of criminal responsibility to a more sensible one, while at the same time raising the level of responsibility parents have for their children's behaviour?

My own gut feeling would be that 14 is probably the lowest sensible age. But, in case we do agree that 16 is good for voting, how about it then also becoming the age of criminal responsibility? And the age of consent? And also the age of financial responsibility? Then the phrase "coming of age" would gain a new weight, even if "sweet little sixteen" would somehow pale...