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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 October 2007, 07:53 GMT 08:53 UK
Too young to be a criminal?
By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Ernest Norton
Ernest Norton's killers were aged between 10 and 12 when he died
As five boys begin two year sentences in a detention centre for manslaughter, calls are being made for the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales to be raised.

The boys were aged between 10 and 12 when they hurled stones at Ernest Norton as he played cricket with his son in south-east London, causing him to collapse and die.

Had they been in most other countries in western Europe, they would have been too young to be considered criminally responsible.

Their cases could have resulted in social service action or juvenile proceedings but they would never have faced a trial in a criminal court.

But in England and Wales the age of criminal responsibility currently stands at 10 - one of the lowest in the world.

Some legal groups and children's charities want the age raised to 14, bringing it in line with Italy, Spain and Germany.

Lawyer Stephen Jakobi, of The Just Umbrella campaign group, believes the British approach to very young offenders is inappropriate.

Taking a child out of the care of its family - it's almost like abduction
Bobby Cummines, Unlock

"The whole system is a system geared to mini-adults," he says.

He fears by locking up children we are creating hardened criminals rather than showing children how to become responsible adults.

The figures, he says, bear this out with nearly three in four 10 to 14-year-old boys reoffending within a year of coming out of custody.

Bobby Cummines, chief executive of Unlock, the national association of ex-offenders, says the task of rehabilitating a child can, in fact, be harder than an adult.

An adult will think 'I have done enough time in jail' and try to change, but a child comes out of the experience very damaged, he says.

CRIMINAL AGES IN EUROPE
10 - England, Wales
14 - Italy, Germany, Spain
15 - Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden
16 - Portugal
18 - Belgium and Luxembourg
Source: The Just Umbrella

A former bank robber himself, Mr Cummines has served 13 years behind bars and knows the toll it can take.

A child going into a detention centre will be traumatised for the first few months, he said.

According to Mr Cummines, then they will feel anger that they cannot go back to their family as they realise what they did was a game that went wrong. They become institutionalised and learn to respond to brutality by being more brutal themselves.

"Taking a child out of the care of its family - it's almost like abduction," he said.

He believes the age should be raised as high as 16 - any younger and children have varying levels of maturity which make it difficult to judge who among them knows right from wrong.

He accepts in the most serious cases a dangerous child should be locked up, but in so many cases their mental health, background or education are the issue.

It is not in the interests of justice, of victims or the young people themselves to prevent serious offending being challenged
Ministry of Justice spokeswoman

The Children's Society, which also wants the age raised, believes labelling children criminals and putting them through the court system is ineffective and inappropriate.

Glyn Farrow, head of Children Law UK, who also supports raising the age says to do so will require a massive shift in public attitude.

Criminal law specialist Robert Brown believes cases, including the Jamie Bulger murder by two young boys in 1993, created such public outrage that the government had to be seen to be tough on crime.

He said he could not foresee any change being made to the age, and recent changes in the law suggested the trend was, in fact, towards becoming tougher on children.

As recently as 1998, the law was changed to abolish doli incapax - a presumption that a person under 14 does not have the knowledge to know the difference between right and wrong.

This meant the prosecution no longer had to show the children did understand they had done wrong for them to be convicted.

In Scotland, children as young as eight can face prosecution. But except for serious crimes, the majority are dealt with by children's panels until the age of 16.

Community sentences

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the government has no plans to change the age of criminal responsibility.

As an alternative to detention, which was always a last resort, the range and intensity of community sentences available for young people had been expanded, she said.

The government believes children of 10 and over can differentiate between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing.

"It is not in the interests of justice, of victims or the young people themselves to prevent serious offending being challenged," she said.

Ernest Norton with his wife
Without a trial, could Linda Norton have felt justice had been done?

And as Det Ch Insp Phil Adams said after five boys were convicted in August of killing Ernest Norton, it was important to think of their victim.

"Nobody likes to see children standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, crying, having been convicted of manslaughter," he said.

"However your mind must then turn to Mr Norton's family. They have lost a father, a husband and a loved one, and we must not forget that."

At the sentencing, the judge stressed he was in no doubt that despite their young age, their conduct had been "utterly disgraceful and criminally irresponsible".

And without that court case, could Mr Norton's family ever have felt satisfied that justice had been done?

SEE ALSO
Criminal age 'should rise to 18'
17 May 07 |  England

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