By Claire Dickson
As the UN committee on the Rights of a Child have come to the conclusion that the minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (ACR) should be 12 or above, it would seem that England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s ACR of only 10 is not aligning with an important international convention, and is one of the lowest in Europe. Added to this, scientific research has shown that the brain of a 10 year old child is developmentally immature and hasn’t evolved through adolescence yet. This means that the child may make irrational decisions, which they are more unlikely to at the age of 18.
A child of 10 is therefore less likely to be able to decipher between right and wrong; a survey taken of over 5000 children in Northern Ireland backed this up as only 49% believed that a 10 year old would understand if they had broken the law. In the same survey less than 25% of the children recognised punching someone to be a crime indicating that if a child becomes involved with the Criminal Justice System at a young age, long-lasting resentment towards it may follow due to lack of understanding surrounding their punishment. This may mean that in the future police will be unable to have conversations to check how certain communities are doing due to a bad relationship with them, or even have as good a handle on controlling crime in an area. Besides, keeping children outside of the Criminal Justice System can mean alternative methods of handling child crime take place such as the use of welfare laws to restrict liberty meaning accountability for actions is still there.
On the other hand, a Review of the Youth Justice System in Northern Ireland found that within the current system where the ACR is 10, certain practices work efficiently for the benefit of young people. It noted that the quality of the custody facilities at Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre is high, so perhaps a young person’s experience there instils core values in them which allow them to realise the consequences of crime at a younger age; they are then able to consider as an adult. Moreover, the fact that only a small amount of young people are admitted to the centre would suggest that young people are not being implemented in the Criminal Justice System in unnecessarily large numbers. The review also praised the introduction of youth conferencing which allows young people to account for their behaviour to victims themselves making it necessary for young people to think about repercussions as a result of crime.
Crime is something which many of us in the UK and Ireland have both engaged with and desperately avoided. The UN’s report shows undoubtedly that the UK’s Criminal Justice System, as well as the culture which surrounds this strand of Britishness – namely the immediate vindication and abandonment of young people involved in crime –, are grossly outdated; a real change is needed to ensure the streets of Northern Ireland, and the wider UK and Ireland, are kept safe a secure for future generations to come.