Culpability: An appeal to reduce the age at which children are deemed to be criminally liable
Dear Mr Mark Menzies,
I am writing to ask you to encourage and support attempts to increase the age of criminality in the UK to twelve years in accordance with the Barnardo’s campaign. As an undergraduate psychology student with an interest in the wellbeing of people and society, I believe that introducing children to the criminal justice system can be detrimental to the children in question and that it may cause more harm than good. I realise the government has no intention of reviewing the age of criminality at this stage, but an awareness of the implications of punishing such young children need to be understood by society. Here, I outline my arguments for increasing the age of criminality, based on psychological phenomena and evidence.
Although it has been suggested by the government that a child of ten is capable of perceiving right from wrong in the eyes of the law, this is not necessarily the case for all individuals. In fact, the stage of conventional morality when an individual understands and obeys the rules of society (Kohlberg, 1976) typically develops between the ages of eight and thirteen. It is a common misconception that all ten-year-olds are capable of understanding and obeying law and order. The government claims that a Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (MACR) higher than ten years of age would allow the perpetrators of crimes such as the Bulger murder to escape justice (Jeremy Wright, 2010 cited by the Ministry of Justice, 2013). However, is it fair to base the criminal justice system (and major legal policy decisions) around a once-in-a-lifetime horrific incident when only a small number of offences committed by such young children are serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence? For example, of the 5,671 offences of ten-to-eleven-year-olds in 2008, only three were deemed serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence (Barnardo’s, 2010). Whilst many other counties have accepted that children as young as ten should not face the ordeal of court proceedings and, instead, protect a child by using video recording as testimonial, this safeguard is only granted to young victims in the UK. In this manner, inconsistently, the presumption of innocence is negated in children of ten and eleven who are on trial.
What can be said about the vulnerability of children under twelve in the criminal justice system? Evidence shows young people are less able to remember events accurately, to resist suggestion and to understand the possible outcomes and punishments of a trial. Gudjonsson (2003) found that individuals are likely to falsely confess if they are vulnerable (i.e. IQ level, mental illnesses and learning disabilities) and are open to suggestibility. This implies that children under the age of 12 may confess to crimes they have not committed. Labour’s 1998 Crime and Disorder Act abolished the principle of doli incapax, whereby the prosecution had to prove that children under 14 appearing in the criminal court knew and fully understood what they were doing was seriously wrong. This was an important safeguard to protect such vulnerable children. Also, false memories can be easily implanted by forcing people to imagine things that did not happen (Wright, Ost & French, 2006). In young children, memory is questionable due to the late maturation of brain regions involved in memory (Nadel & Zola-Morgan, 1984) and changes in schemas, i.e. cognitive structures, as we grow older (Usher & Neisser, 1993). This explains why adults can have significant gaps in childhood memories even after the age of five (Read & Lindsay, 1997). As McCormick (1972) explains, the introduction of a confession makes other aspects of a trial superfluous and is often the main cause of wrongful convictions. So a false confession can be truly damaging and children in the criminal justice system are often quite vulnerable.
There are other options available for young children who break the law, which I urge you to support. The Barnardo’s campaign (2010) proposed that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 12 years except in cases of murder, rape and other serious offences. In fact, Lord Dholakia has proposed a bill to make it law. Instead, Family Interventions Projects (FIPs) could be used to challenge and support parents to help their children face up to their behaviour and accept responsibility. Evidence shows that FIPs create a 64 per cent reduction in anti-social behaviour, a 58 per cent reduction in truancy and exclusions, a 45 per cent reduction in substance misuse and a 42 per cent reduction in concerns about child protection. Whereas when a ten-year-old enters the criminal justice system, the chances of them re- offending are high: 40 per cent of those given a referral order offend within a year and seven out of ten of those are given community sentences. Barnardo’s (2010) argue that avoiding criminalisation is cost- effect and that £6 million could have been saved in court appearances in 2008 alone, money that could have been better invested in prevention rather than punishment.
I believe that it is inappropriate for a child under the age of 12 to enter the criminal justice system for non-serious crimes. To label them as criminals is damaging to their rehabilitation and to society. It will make them more likely to re-offend. Instead, the government should invest in Family Intervention Projects, avoiding criminalisation and reducing anti-social behaviour. Please vote for Lord Dholakia’s bill supporting the Barnardo’s campaign, which aims to increase the age of criminality to 12 years, except in the cases of extreme offences.
Barnardo’s (2010). From Playground to Prison: the case for reviewing the age of criminal responsibility. Retrieved from: http://www.barnardos.org.uk/120910_from_playground_to_prison-2.pdf
Gudjonsson, G. H. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions: A handbook. John Wiley & Sons.
Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. McCormick, C.T., (1972). Handbook of the law of evidence (2nd ed). St. Paul, MN: West.
Ministry of Justice (2013). News: Communities for Youth Justice. Retrieved from: http://issuu.com/aopm/docs/37_march2013__2_
Moral development and behavior: Theory, research, and social issues, 31-53.
Nadel, L., & Zola-Morgan, S. (1984). Infantile amnesia. In Infant memory (pp. 145-172). Springer US.
Read, J., & Lindsay, D. (1997). Recollections of trauma: Scientific evidence and clinical practice. Plenum Press.
Usher, J. A., & Neisser, U. (1993). Childhood amnesia and the beginnings of memory for four early life events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 122(2), 155.
Wright, D., Ost, J., & French, C. (2006). Recovered and false memories. The Psychologist, 19(6), 352-355.