The age of criminal responsibility
A recent (15 March 2017) article by the Economist used a proposal to let Philippine criminal courts try nine year olds to examine the age of criminal responsibility around the world.
Common law has long held that committing a crime requires both a prohibited act and a “mens rea”, or “guilty mind”—the criminal knowing that the act was wrong. There is no global consensus regarding the youngest age at which a child can be deemed to have such intent, and thus can be tried and convicted of a criminal offence.
Ten years ago the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended an “absolute minimum” age of 12 for criminal responsibility, and urged countries “to continue to increase it to a higher age level”.
However, there remains a truly vast variation in practice across the world. As you can see, the most common minimal age of criminal responsibility (MACR) is 14 years old.
The US sets a threshold of 11 years old for federal offences. However, the overwhelming share of crimes are policed at the state level. And 35 out of the 50 states have not set a MACR, putting them in a club with Cuba, Malaysia (exclusively for terrorism) and Sudan (for drug offences).
The UK and Europe
Although most European states sit comfortably above the UN recommendation, there are notable exceptions. Scotland can hand out criminal records to eight-year-olds, though legislation is being mooted that will raise the minimum age limit to 12. In the rest of Britain, ten-year-olds can be (and occasionally are) tried for a crime.
This British colonial legacy is reflected in the relatively low minimal age of criminal responsibility (MACR) seen in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Similarly, Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the 21 countries that set a MACR of seven, the lowest national age globally.
It’s interesting that at a time when we are talking about the biggest prison reform programme in modern history, the UK still lags behind almost all our European neighbours in criminalising children still in junior school.
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