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Last Updated: Friday, 22 September 2006, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Criminal justice's youth dilemma
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Pressure is being put on the government to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14. Can children really understand the difference between right and wrong?

The age of criminal responsibility was lowered to 10 in the 1990s

Any discussion of child criminality seems duty-bound to mention Jon Venables and Robert Thompson who were 10 years old when they abducted and murdered toddler Jamie Bulger.

But thankfully, that was a once-in-a-generation crime.

Most criminal activity in the under-15 age group involves petty thievery or anti-social behaviour, where the distinction between right and wrong can be a lot less clear.

Chartered clinical psychologist Emma Citron, who works with youth offenders, says she sees a big difference between children aged 10 and 11 and those aged 13 or 14.

"Really young people tend to get into trouble for shoplifting and petty crimes - and there are also sexual offences like pulling another child's trousers down.

"If they are 10 or 11 years old, I would view it as a warning sign and I would want them to undergo some simple cognitive therapy - trying to get them to see their actions from other people's points of view.

When you are young, right is what your mother tells you is right
Linda Blair
Consultant psychologist

"If they are 13 or 14, then I would be seriously concerned. I would be expecting them not to be acting like that any more."

She believes that early intervention by therapists or social workers can stop a child from having to face the criminal justice system later in life.

'Empty time'

Linda Blair, a consultant psychologist, argues that youngsters will often be able to say what the difference between right and wrong is.

"When you are young, right is what your mother tells you is right," she says.

England and Wales: 10
Canada: 12
France: 13
Germany: 14
Japan: 14
Russia: 14
Italy: 15

But she questions whether they can really understand the consequences of their actions.

"And knowing the consequences of your actions is only one part of it - then you have to be able to inhibit your behaviour."

By the age of 14, she says, children are much more able to understand what they are doing and how it is affecting others. But much consideration is needed before deciding to punish any youngsters.

"If you punish somebody who is young, what they have is 'empty time'. If you don't given them something to do, or teach them how to behave better, then they are just going to go on doing the same things," she adds.

Different culpability

Vivian Hill, of London's Institute of Education, says recent research has shown that adolescents do not have fully formed brains and cannot be held responsible for criminal behaviour in the same way adults are.

"What researchers have been able to recognise is that the period around adolescence is a period of huge development in the frontal lobe.

"This is the part of the brain linked with planning, decision-making, aggression control and how we interact with others."

When coupled with puberty, this process of brain development can result in a "biological imperative" towards violence and offensive behaviour, she says.

The problem is that people's brains are often not fully-formed until their early 20s.

But Ms Hill says there is no question that young people who commit crimes do have to be punished in some way.

"I don't think anyone would argue that adolescents have no culpability whatsoever, but they certainly cannot reason it through in the same way that an adult can."


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