The following research attempts to explore and discuss the criminal age of responsibility in England and Wales. A questionnaire was given out to a sample population in order to gauge public opinion on and around this topic. Secondary data was gathered, such as books, journals and online resources, in order to discuss and explore different ways of dealing with juvenile offenders. Overall, the evidence indicates a strong argument for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised but insufficient evidence was gathered to determine clearly which juvenile justice approach is most effective.
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The age of criminal responsibility is the age at which a child can be considered an adult for purposes of criminal prosecution. In England and Wales, the criminal age of responsibility is set at age ten and is one of the lowest in Europe, with only Switzerland being lower at age seven. Countries such as Uganda, Algeria, China and the Russian Federation, all have political regimes that could arguably be considered as severe and excessive, yet, all these countries have set the criminal age of responsibility at over ten years, YJB [online].
In England and Wales the age of criminal responsibility has not changed since 1963, when it was raised from age eight to ten. Until 1988 a policy was in place to safe guard children between the ages of ten and fourteen; under this policy children were presumed incapable of forming necessary criminal intent unless proven otherwise by the prosecution, House of Commons Library [online]. In March of this year, Scotland raised the age of criminal responsibility from age eight to twelve years; England and Wales have no plans to change the age at present. YJB [online].
Therefore, evidence shows that there is no clear agreement on what is an acceptable age to be treated as an adult under the jurisdiction of the law.
Morrison, Blake. (1997). As If. London: Granta Publications.
Blake Morrison attended the trial of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson and in his book gives a sensitive account of the families involved in the Bulger case. Morrison describes a criminal justice system that is concerned with only facts and arguably lacks the understanding needed when dealing with such sensitive cases involving children of such a young age.
Williams, John. (2010) ‘ASBO Nation’. Sociology Review. 19, (4), p2-6.
Sociology Review is an academic magazine aimed at A-level sociology students. It covers a broad range of sociological topics including politics, education, and religion and of course crime and deviance. In this issue of the magazine it covered a topic on anti social behaviour orders, which proved useful when discussing juvenile crime.
Children & Young People Now [online] Available from
http://www.cypnow.co.uk/Archive/1009000/Criminal-Bar-Association-chair-calls-rise-age-criminal-responsibility/ [accessed 19th June 2010]
‘Children and Young People Now’ is a Journal available in print and on line. It aims to bring together children and youth professionals across health, social care, education, childcare, youth work and youth justice, to provide advice and guidance to managers and senior practitioners working with children and young people. It features many relevant news articles and current issues concerning children and young people and is a trusted source of information used by professionals working within this area.
The Howard league for Penal Reform. [online] Frances Crook’s Blog (updated 1st April 2010) Available from http://www.howardleague.org/francescrookblog/the-age-of-criminal-responsibility [accessed Saturday 19th June 2010]
Frances Crook is the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the oldest penal reform charity in the U.K. She has been responsible for research programmes and campaigns to raise public concern, about among other things, young people in trouble. Throughout her career she has worked as a teacher in secondary schools as well as taking the position of Governor of Greenwich University. In 2005 she was awarded the Perrie Award which is awarded to individuals who have made a substantial contribution to the development of criminal justice or penal policy and practice. Therefore, Crook’s long career working with children and within the criminal justice system gives her valuable insight into the most effective ways of dealing with child crime.
Youth Justice Board. [online] Cross-national comparison of youth justice Available from: http://www.yjb.gov.uk/en-gb/ [accessed Saturday 19th June 2010]
The youth justice board (YJB), oversees the youth justice system in England and Wales. It works to prevent offending by children and young people under the age of 18 and ensures that custody for them is safe, secure, and addresses the causes of their offending behaviour. It enables access to reports and legislations and is a valuable and reliable resource concerning youth crime.
Home office [online] Available from: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/about-us/ [accessed 1st July 2010]
The home office is a Government department that deals with, among other things, drugs, policy, police and crime. During this research it proved useful as a guide to the workings of the criminal justice system in England and Wales. It is also linked to many surveys and statistics that were used within this research. Being an official Government department, the information is highly reliable.
The media is awash with reports of juvenile crime – with stories of anti-social behaviour to more violent crimes such as the murder carried out by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, Blake Morrison, (As If). In 1998 the Anti Social Behaviour Order was introduced, and since then the term ‘asbo child’ has become part of the English language, Sociology review, vol 19, (p2-6). Gun and knife crimes are high and recent reports claim that the ambulance and emergency services in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, dealt with six hundred and seventy nine gunshot wounds in people under the age of twenty five in the twelve months leading to October 2009, BBC Newsbeat online. Therefore, the criminal age of responsibility is often the focus of much discussion. In light of the recent reports of Jon Venables being taken back into custody Guardian.Co.uk [online], the Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson reportedly called for the government to raise the age of criminal responsibility, from age twelve to fourteen, Children and Young People Now [online]. This argument is supported by the Chairman of The Criminal Bar association, Paul Mendelle QC, who is reported as saying that he also believes that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to age fourteen; he is also reported as calling for a return to the previous policy of Doli Incapax. However the Ministry of Justice maintains that children over the age of ten know the difference between bad behavior and serious wrongdoing, Children and young people now [online]. Therefore, evidence shows a lack of agreement concerning the set age of criminal responsibility. Consequently, it could be argued that the current system would benefit from research to help determine a more universally acceptable age to be held criminally responsibility.
The aims of this research are:
To explore different ways of dealing with young offenders in England and Wales, to help determine ways that could improve the current system.
To discuss whether age ten is a reasonable age for children to be held criminally responsible for their actions, within the jurisdiction of the law.
To measure public opinion on whether the criminal age of responsibility should be changed in England and Wales.
The experimental Hypothesis and null Hypothesis
A majority of the public in England and Wales feel that the criminal age of responsibility should be set higher than age ten.
This research predicts that the majority will feel that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised and therefore it is a one-tailed hypothesis.
Under the null hypothesis we would expect no clear majority to be revealed on either side of the argument.
An open questionnaire was used to gather qualitative, primary data (appendix A); eighteen participants were chosen from varied demographic backgrounds to help give a valid representation of the larger population, of England and Wales. Their ages ranged from eighteen to seventy four and consisted of both males and females and both parents and non-parent. The participants were verbally briefed on the nature of the topic and the questionnaire had a brief written introduction explaining the basic history and facts of the subject. They were told that all answers would be regarded as anonymous and that they had the right to withdraw their answers if they so wished. Using an open questionnaire enabled the respondents to be guided through the topical questions whilst still having the flexibility to fully express their feelings on the topic. Also, space was provided for any further comments the participants wished to make. After the interview participants were asked to sign a consent form giving their permission for the information to be used in sociological research (appendix B).
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Out of eighteen respondents, just under half felt that the age of criminal responsibility should be set higher than age ten. Just over half of the respondents felt that children of age ten do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. When asked ‘should more responsibility be placed upon the parents of young offenders’, all but one respondent felt that it should, thus supporting the idea that the current system in England and Wales does not work sufficiently. Contradictory to this evidence, when asked, ‘do you feel that the current system works sufficiently’, only two thirds of the respondents felt that it did not; many respondents felt that they did not know enough about the current system to give a valid reply. When asked for their ideas on improving the current system, respondent’s answers were varied and included: more discipline at home, stronger punishment for parents and more involvement from relevant bodies i.e. welfare workers etc.
Therefore the questionnaire supports the original aims of the investigation. It was useful in gauging public opinion on whether the criminal age of responsibility should be changed and it enabled the respondents to express their opinions on whether age ten is a reasonable age for children to be held criminally responsible for their actions. Lastly it gave space for respondents to give any ideas they had concerning the improvement of the current system
Overall the research indicates that there is a strong argument for raising the criminal age of responsibility; this is supported by both primary and secondary data. Many people feel that children of age ten do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. Also, evidence indicates that there is a strong feeling amongst the public that more responsibility should be placed upon parents; when asked, all but one respondent agreed that parents should take more responsibility for their children’s behaviour. Lastly, the primary data from this research indicates that many people feel that the current juvenile justice system does not work sufficiently in England and Wales.
The results from the questionnaire support existing evidence; for example there is much evidence to support a change in the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales. One such argument was put forward by the children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson; who when referring to the murder of James Bulger (James was murdered by two ten year old boys in 1993, Morrison, As If) is reported as saying ‘Venables and Thompson should not have been tried for murder, at age ten they were too young to understand the full consequences of their actions’ Guardian [online]. Frances Crook, the Director of The Howard League for Penal Reform also supports Atkinson argument and compares the legal system of England and Wales with that of other countries in Europe. In her blog, Crook points out that the criminal age of responsibility in England and Wales is one of the youngest in Europe and she goes on to argue that children in these countries are not ignored if they do wrong but instead their immaturity is recognized and the response is appropriate, Frances Crook’s Blog [online]. This argument is also supported by the chairman of the criminal bar association, Paul Mendelle, who called for the age to be raised from age ten to
fourteen. In an interview in the Telegraph Mendelle is reported as saying, ‘a child of ten can know he or she is doing something wrong and not always appreciate it is criminally wrong’ children and young people now [online]. In his book As If, Blake Morrison again supports this attitude and suggests that children of ten are not able to act on their understanding of right and wrong with the same conviction as adults; he goes on to argue that, if children of ten know the difference between right and wrong then why not let them be jurors? (As If, chapter 5).
Although there is much support for the criminal age of responsibility to be raised, it has been refused by the Ministry of Justice, which maintains that children of age ten and over can differentiate between bad behavior and serious wrong doing, Children and Young People Now [online]. Many people have similar opinions as the primary data of this research illustrates, just under half of the respondents felt that age ten is a reasonable age to be held criminally responsible for your actions. Other than public opinion, there is little evidence of a similar attitude; many high profile and academic people agree that age ten is not an appropriate age but other than the Ministry of Justice, no academic opinion was found to support the other side of this argument.
Research illustrates two main attitudes towards dealing with young offenders: the welfare approach and the justice approach. The welfare approach emphasises paternalism and protection and therefore focuses on treating the root causes of juvenile crime; whereas the justice approach emphasises judicial rights, accountability for crimes and formal punishment, Cross-national comparison of youth justice [online]. It could be argued that most criminal justice systems can be traced back to either the welfare or justice approach but most are more varied and complex and include elements of both. According to the Home Office Youth Lifestyle Survey (1998/99) [online], key factors linked with serious and/or persistent offenders between the ages of twelve and seventeen was found to be:
Drugs – children that had used drugs within a twelve month period were almost fives times more likely to offend than those that had not.
School – children that were unhappy in school or were persistent truants were found to be more likely to offend.
Family and peers – children that had family and friends who had offended were found to be more likely to offend themselves.
Also children that did not have sufficient supervision and guidance, and /or hung around in public places, were found to be more likely to offend than those that did not.
Additional research into the reasons why children offend is beneficial to crime prevention agencies in addressing and preventing juvenile crime. Much research supports the idea that prevention is the cheapest and most successful way of dealing with crime; studies in America have shown that ‘one dollar spent on early prevention will save seven dollars fourteen years later’, young people and crime [online]. Therefore, the root causes of youth crime are of great interest to Sociologists and Governments alike.
The following paragraphs aim to explore and compare two similar criminal cases, so as to determine ways that could improve the current system in England and Wales. The first crime took place in 1993 in Merseyside, England. Two year old James Bulger was taken from a shopping centre by two ten year old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Venables and Thompson wandered around with James for several hours before beating him and leaving him tied to a railway track; when the child was finally found his body had been cut in half by a passing train. The two boys, Venables and Thompson were tried and convicted of murder in an adult court – which in contrast to youth courts allows public and media access – and consequently spent eight years in custody before being released in 2001 with protected identity’s, Morrison, As if. In 2010 Venables was taken back into custody but the reason has not been made clear to the public. There has been no news on Thompson and so it may be assumed that he has settled back into mainstream society with no major problems.
A similar crime was committed in 1994, in the Norwegian city of Tronheim. Five year old Silje Raedergard was stoned and left to freeze to death in snow, by two six year old boys, BBC News, How Norway dealt with it’s Bulger case [online]. In contrast to the Bulger killing, the two boys responsible for killing Silje were not prosecuted or named in the press but instead were treated as victims, not killers. The boys were left with their families and returned to kindergarten shortly after the incident and welfare and psychological help was given to them. All that is known of the two boys today is that one has settled back into mainstream society and the other still has ongoing psychiatric problems.
Therefore it could be argued that while these two cases were dealt with very differently, the outcomes are similar. One of the boys responsible for Silje’s death has adjusted to normal life but the other still receives psychiatric help. Likewise, Venables has been returned to custody but Thompson so far has not. Little more is published about the boys or families concerned in these cases, which leaves many questions un-answered concerning the long term effects of both methods of reform. Statistics show (appendix C) that the annual total crime rate in 2002, in the U.K. is over 6.5 million compared to Norway which is just over 330,000; this could arguably be an indication that the juvenile justice system in Norway is more efficient than of that in England and Wales, The Eighth United Nations Survey [online].
Limitations of the methodology
Keeping the focus of this research simple proved difficult because the subject of criminal responsibility is extremely vast. Finding Government reports and statistics that were specifically related to the topic was also difficult and time consuming. Also, gathering a sample that is representative of the wider population is challenging when time and resources are limited. Therefore the primary data gathered in this research was arguably limited and a larger population sample may have given more valid results. Not all of the questionnaires were returned and some people felt that they did not know enough about the topic to make valid comments. Therefore a more in-depth introduction or briefing may have been beneficial. Possibly a focus group would have been a more useful method of gathering primary data as it would of enabled the participants to fully discuss their ideas and thoughts on the subject before deciding on any conclusions.
In conclusion, the evidence gathered in this research supports the hypothesis; there is much evidence – both primary and secondary – that suggests that the criminal age of responsibility should be set higher than age ten. Different ways of dealing with juvenile crime was explored and statistics were gathered to help determine which system proves to be most sufficient. Arguably, lower crime rates in Norway indicates that the welfare approach – which is the most dominant factor in the Norwegian system – is more effective than the justice approach, that is more dominant in England and Wales but as the comparison of criminal cases show, any difference is minimal and not sufficient to make any bold conclusions.
If further research were to be carried out, I would recommend that;
More time is taken to investigate other juvenile justice systems, such as that of Norway.
A larger population sample would be useful to gauge a more valid public opinion.
A focus group would be useful to enable participants to discuss and answer any queries they have.
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