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This house would raise the age of criminal responsibility
This house would raise the age of criminal responsibility
The age of criminal responsibility is the age at which a person can be charged with and tried for a crime. It varies between different states and countries; in North Carolina it is 6, it is 7 in most states in the USA, 10 in the UK, and as high as 18 in Belgium1. This motion is suggesting that the age should be at the upper end of this range, perhaps as high as 18; ultimately, this is a decision for the exact motion or the Proposition team. This debate is written as though the motion were "This House Would Raise the Age of Criminal Responsibility to 16", but the arguments apply to other ages as well.The UN says that the age of criminal responsibility "shall not be fixed at too low an age level, bearing in mind the facts of emotional, mental and intellectual maturity." This debate is therefore about whether a person of a certain age has the intellectual and emotional maturity to firstly, understand that their actions are wrong, and secondly, understand and participate in the trial process such that a fair verdict is reached.1 http://www.unicef.org/pon97/p56a.htm "> UNICEF, "Old Enough to Be a Criminal", 1997,
|Points For||Points Against|
|Children do not understand the difference between right and wrong.||Reinforcing moral norms.|
|Children who commit crimes are victims of circumstance.||Limited policy responses.|
|Children cannot receive a fair trial.||Dealing with Gang Culture.|
|The harms of criminalisation.||Many children do know the difference between right and wrong.|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Children do not understand the difference between right and wrong.
Children do not have the emotional maturity to be responsible in law for their actions. We all know that children cannot always make informed decisions. It is for this reason that children in many countries cannot vote or drink alcohol or consent to sex. Children have not had enough experience of life and do not yet have the same mental and emotional abilities as adults. They are often not aware of the consequences of their actions. Even where they know the difference between right and wrong, they often don't understand the difference between various levels of wrongdoing. It is therefore unfair to hold them criminally responsible for these actions. See for example the case of two boys (of 10 and 11) convicted of raping an 8 year old girl; there was a suggestion that they believed they were only playing a game, and did not understand the importance of what happened.1
1 BBC, "Two boys guilty of attempted rape charges in London", May 2010,
In short, some children do realise the difference between right and wrong. Where a majority of children at a certain age do understand that difference, it is right to prosecute them. Furthermore, ignorance of the law cannot be taken to be a defence as an adult; when someone has the capacity to understand that theft, violence etc. is wrong, how can it be right to allow them to go unpunished should they commit such an offence?Improve this
Children who commit crimes are victims of circumstance.
We should address these circumstances rather than punishing them. Studies show that they are often vulnerable children who have grown up in poverty, been uncared for by their parents, moved house a lot, been abused, been victims or members of gang activity, and often skipped school. Rather than sending these children to young offender institutes, often harming their education and training them to be criminals, we should take other measures. As in Norway, for example, social authorities should take action to secure the child's development through counselling or time in a special care unit. Measures should depend of the child's circumstances, rather than how bad their crime was. This is more likely to reduce criminal behaviour in the future. In addition, there are issues about 'class' here. Rich children are less likely to be criminalised because their parents can deal better with the situation and pay for better lawyers.
1 Council of Europe, "Youth Policy in Norway", 2004,(From Page 57)
While this may be true, some of the measures that may be ideal are, as suggested below, ones that require a finding of guilt. For example, it would be considered wrong to place a supervision order on someone who had not committed a crime; such an order would therefore not be available to rehabilitate a criminal.Improve this
Children cannot receive a fair trial.
Given the serious consequences of being found guilty, it is important that people have a fair trial to find out whether they are guilty and to make sure any punishment is just. Children often struggle to understand the trial process which may be long, technical and stressful. Children are unlikely to have the concentration to follow the evidence properly and may not be able to give clear and consistent instructions to their lawyers. This can lead to great injustice if the child cannot adequately follow the trial because they do not understand, or are intimidated by, the strange setting and the language used. For example, in the Jamie Bulger case (see above), it was noted that throughout much of the three week trial the boys looked bewildered and bored, and that neither boy gave evidence.1
1 Wikipedia, "Murder of James Bulger"
There are measures that can be taken to limit the unfairness of the trial; lawyers can limit the formality of the atmosphere, evidential rules can be used to limit the importance of not testifying and using short sessions can ensure that children can participate. The difficulty of a trial is no excuse for not trying to do it to the best of the justice system's ability. Furthermore, the judge and the jury are capable of assessing the evidence, and ensuring the process is fair.Improve this
The harms of criminalisation.
Criminalising children harms their development and makes the situation worse. Being labelled as a criminal at a very young age is unlikely to lead to a better understanding of right and wrong. Instead, a child who does not understand the wrongfulness of what they have done may feel unjustly treated and feel bitter toward society. Or the child might simply accept the label of being criminal and resign themselves to it. Children who are labelled criminals are also likely to be treated worse by those around them, such as teachers or other parents, separating them from society. In addition, those sent to prison or young offender institutes are cut off from their friends and family and develop friendships with other criminals, possibly even sharing ideas about crimes. All of these reactions are likely to make the child's situation worse and increase the chance of future criminal behaviour.Improve this
While this is true in some cases, there are other sentences aside from prison or young offender institutes (see Opposition Argument Three below). In particular, some supervision orders may in fact aid supervision, while labelling can be avoided by using more neutral language (as is used in UK Youth Courts). Rehabilitation can be harmed by not using some of the tools of justice.Improve this
Reinforcing moral norms.
It is important to criminalise certain types of behaviour to reinforce the notion that it is wrong. When some people see others getting away with minor crimes (particularly those that are not already seen as particularly bad, such as soft drug taking), they are less likely to believe they are wrong, and therefore more likely to believe such crimes are acceptable.1 This can lead to increases in crime. The response to riots in the London, Birmingham and Manchester has been criticised as being too harsh for small offenses, it is exactly such events where moral norms need to be reinforced by tough sentences.2 Furthermore, it is important to demonstrate to the criminal that their actions are wrong; many young criminals probabilistically grow up in families where, due to absent parents or parents needing to work, notions of right and wrong are poorly taught. A criminal conviction can teach a young person that such behaviour is not tolerable, which is especially valuable where they are not taught that at home.
1. Law Library
2. BBC May 2010Improve this
Most people understand that crime is wrong, and people will understand why it is inappropriate to criminalise this. Furthermore, it is better to teach young people that their actions are wrong, without labelling them as wrong as individuals.Improve this
Limited policy responses.
If the age of criminal responsibility is raised, it means that certain policy responses – which may be the most effective in a given situation – are excluded. Typically, the sentences in Youth Courts are designed to prevent further offending, and to ensure the child does not fall into a life of crime, such as supervision orders, banning from certain areas and electronic tagging. When a child is considered beyond the reach of the law, these policy options are not available, and a tool for tackling crime for both the community and the individual themselves is lost.Improve this
In the overwhelming majority of cases, criminalising a youth is likely to be harmful. While in a very small number of cases a supervision order may be useful, this is rare and, crucially, whether or not it will be effective is very difficult to determine in advance. As such, a rule preventing the use of such measures is more effective than a case-by-case analysis.Improve this
Dealing with Gang Culture.
Children, some as young as 9, are often already members of gangs.1 For example, Sean Mercer, known for murdering an 11 year old boy in the UK2, was a member of a gang from the age of 14. Indeed, gangs often target young members so they can use them to commit criminal offences without suffering any legal repercussions. So as an example of the first argument, a Parole Officer and a Judge may decide the most effective way to prevent a 14 year old from committing further offences within their gang is to sentence them to a spell inside a Young Offenders Institute. Under this motion, this policy option is no longer possible, meaning some non-optimal responses to criminality. This may lead to young people becoming trapped within the culture of a gang, failing in their education, and having a life of criminality. Generally, earlier responses to rehabilitation are more likely to be successful.3
1 The Telegraph, "Family Breakdown Makes Children Join Gangs", 2008,
2Wikipedia Wikipedia, "Murder of Rhys Jones"
3 The Seattle Times, "Right from Wrong", 1994
The quoted article suggests that many incentives of gangs to employ younger and younger children is that they are below the age of criminal responsibility, and so can commit crimes without worrying about repercussions. The current low age therefore incentivises targeting children below that age, and so pushes more young children into gangs.Improve this
Many children do know the difference between right and wrong.
While this may not be true of all children, it is too difficult to conduct an individual assessment, as it is evidentially difficult to determine whether a child does understand the difference between right and wrong; the child will have an incentive to pretend he did not. Instead, a probabilistic measure should be adopted for when the children of a certain age do understand the difference between right and wrong. At sixteen, most children understand this difference1; for a younger example, see the murder of James Bulger in the UK; he was killed by two ten year old boys, who were found by the forensic psychiatrist to understand that what they were doing was wrong.2
1 The Seattle Times, "Right from Wrong", 1994
2 Wikipedia, "Murder of James Bulger"
Some children are not aware of this; it is wrong to convict children on the basis of a probabilistic assessment of what people of their age understand, as the individual may come from a background where they have been poorly taught that their behaviour is wrong.Improve this
Law Library – American Law and Legal Information, “Punishment – Moral Justifications and Legal Punishment”, http://law.jrank.org/pages/1905/Punishment-Moral-justifications-legal-punishment.html
BBC News, “Some England riot sentences ‘too severe’, 17 August 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14553330
UNICEF, “Old Enough to Be a Criminal”, 1997, http://www.unicef.org/pon97/p56a.htm
BBC, “Two boys guilty of attempted rape charges in London”, May 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8692223.stm
Council of Europe, “Youth Policy in Norway”, 2004, http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/youth/Source/IG_Coop/YP_Norway_en.pdf (From Page 57)
Wikipedia, “Murder of James Bulger”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_James_Bulger
The Seattle Times, “Right from Wrong”, 1994, http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19941025&slug=1937798
The Telegraph, “Family Breakdown Makes Children Join Gangs”, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1895844/Family-breakdown-makes-children-join-gangs.html
Wikipedia, “Murder of Rhys Jones”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Rhys_Jones
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