Naughty or criminal

IN THE 18th and early 19th century children could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread but, under pressure from reformists and the developing trade union and labour movement, the Victorians rejected such draconian punishments.

As well as reducing the range of hanging offences for criminals of any age the Victorians grew to recognise that a child’s mind works differently to an adult and their judgement and understanding of consequences develop gradually.

They put the age of attaining adulthood at 21; most modern countries put it somewhere between 16 and 21 years.

This is the age at which people become legally entitled to vote, marry, enter into binding agreements, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or serve in the armed forces. It is universally recognised that before that age young people do not have enough wisdom and judgement to make those decisions for themselves.

Yet in England, Wales and the north of Ireland now the age of criminal responsibility is set at 10 years of age — much lower than in most European countries. And papers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph would prefer it to be lower. “Any five-year-old knows the difference between right and wrong,” they claim.

Children do know what is naughty because their parents or teachers tell them so and that it will lead to consequences like the “naughty step” or suspension of pocket money or detention at school. They do not fully understand what is criminal because it causes hurt and pain to others and leads to very serious, life-changing consequences. Bourgeois Britain has lost track of the difference between naughtiness and criminality.

A new report from the Royal Society, Neuroscience and the Law, based on studies of the way children’s brains develop has provided strong evidence that children’s brains are not fully developed and continue to develop during their teens and that our current age of criminal responsibility is way too low.

The research was carried out by a panel of scientists, lawyers and ethicists of how developments in neuroscience and brain imaging should inform the future practice of law.

“A number of psychologists have already shown that adolescents are not wholly responsible individuals and are inclined to take risks and behave in irresponsible ways,” said Nicholas Mackintosh, an emeritus professor in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge and chair of the Royal Society panel. “What neuroscience has shown in the last 10 years is that this is at least associated with the fact that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence.”

Research has also shown that there is huge variation between individuals and that the development of the slowest-developing parts of the brain is associated with comparable changes in mental functions such as IQ, suggestibility, impulsivity, memory and decision-making.

“It is clear that at the age of 10 the brain is developmentally immature, and continues to undergo important changes linked to regulating one’s own behaviour,” said the report. “There is concern among some professionals in this field that the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is unreasonably low, and the evidence of individual differences suggests that an arbitrary cut-off age may not be justifiable.”

This puts Cameron’s responses to the riots into a whole new perspective, especially in regard to juvenile offenders. The jailing of adolescents for stealing trivial items will have done far more harm than good. Juvenile naughtiness needs to be addressed by society at large — parents may need support and guidance on this, or simply more time to be with their children.

But the consequences need to be in proportion to the child’s age and ability to understand — for example extra schooling at weekends or a small amount of carefully supervised community service. But naughtiness should never be confused with criminality.

Unfortunately our society does not distinguish and treats children as criminals and dishes out criminal punishments. The real crime is the way our children, especially those from low-income families are treated by the state.

Children’s services are facing draconian cuts and youth projects and clubs are being closed — the very things that would help them to develop adult judgement and wisdom. Higher and further education are being priced beyond their reach and the media are telling them they are the criminals — a prophesy that is likely to become self-fulfilling.