Youth justice: Out of line?

Becky Randel compares the UK’s low age of criminal responsibility with international examples and looks for alternatives.

Syria. Cameroon. Tanzania. Ivory Coast. Bhutan.

These are the countries that England, Wales and Northern Ireland rank with when it comes to the minimum age of criminal responsibility. In all these countries, children as young as 10 years old (that is children in primary education and still not considered responsible enough under UK law to own a pet) may be arrested and prosecuted under the criminal law.

In fact, the UK’s age of criminal responsibility is lower even than Azerbaijan, Russia, Belarus, Uganda and Angola, to name but a few. A list the majority of Britons would be surprised to find their country compared to on the basis of their human or child rights record.

While the minimum age of criminal responsibility is not the only barometer of a progressive or child-friendly youth justice system, it is an important indicator of the way a country views its children and the causes of their behaviour.

Despite consistent efforts from NGOs, charities and activists over several years and continued recommendations from the United Nations, consecutive UK government refusals to seriously debate the issue or raise the age is a clear message that our youth justice system is focused on punishment and retribution rather than welfare and rehabilitation.

Having effective responses to children who commit both grave acts and anti-social acts that would be criminal if they were the age of responsibility is crucial and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that these children receive special protective measures in their best interests.

The UK could learn from other countries that having a higher age of criminal responsibility would help to provide vulnerable children with appropriate responses to potentially criminal behaviour without the damaging and stigmatising effects that the formal justice process brings.

For example, in Toronto, Canada, the ‘Snap Outreach Project’ (European Crime Prevention Network, A Review of good practices in Preventing Juvenile Crime in the European Union, 2006), Available at:  serves as a central hub for a wide range of agencies responding to anti-social behaviour from children under the age of criminal responsibility, including the police, school boards, children’s welfare services and charities. Children are assessed and then provided with cognitive behaviour therapy and parents are provided with child management strategies. Children can also receive mentoring, counselling and home tutoring.

In Berlin, Germany, the ‘Fallschrim’ (European Crime Prevention Network, Good Practice Resources) project recognises that those children who commit offences under the age of criminal responsibility are often marginalised in society. Accordingly it focuses on trying to make sure the children don’t become more marginalised and criminalised by establishing regular contact with the child, his or her family and social services, the police, the child’s school and other social inclusion youth projects in the area.

These are just two country-specific examples and, in fact, the European Crime Prevention Network provides numerous projects from across Europe as evidence of the successful rehabilitation of children below the age of criminal responsibility.

The UK has services similar to this, the Youth Inclusion and Support Panels (YISPs) and Family Intervention Projects for high-risk families, among others. If we utilise these projects due to evidence that they are effective with children showing at-risk or offending behaviour below the age of criminal responsibility and are effective at preventing offending, then we should be convinced that raising the age of criminal responsibility and referring children below this age to these programmes would have little effect on the future crime rate. And, with no effect on the future crime rate, we are left with no justification for a low age of criminal responsibility except as retribution.

Becky Randel is Research Assistant at Penal Reform International.

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