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Childhood Convictions are a Red Flag for Life

Children are over represented in statistics on crime and violence, both as victims and as perpetrators. To be able to charge them with criminal offences at 10 years is failing them before they have a chance.

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The age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old

This is a guest post by Catch22’s Director of Young People and Families Kate Wareham.

A Red Flag for Life

When a child is in contact with the criminal justice system, more often than not it has a negative impact on the rest of their lives. The experience of an arrest as a child and the subsequent court process does nothing to deter a child from subsequent reoffending, and we know at least 38% of children and young people reoffend within 12 months. In fact, once a child is charged – and considered a ‘young offender’ – the likelihood of committing future offences increases.[1]

Most children who offend rarely pose a serious risk to other people – of the crimes committed by 10- to 14-year-olds in England and Wales, 90% were deemed ‘less serious’ – those involving theft, drugs, motoring offences or burglary. 2% of cases were related to sexual offences.   

Start from the Right Place

The starting point must be that every child is vulnerable – and recognition of the fact that the vast majority of children who are branded criminals are in fact victims of crime themselves, be it through grooming which has occurred prior to an offence, exploitation, or a situation they find themselves in at home.  The priority has to be preventing children from being involved in the justice system and addressing the root causes of any harmful behaviour. 

Intervening Early

 While poverty and unemployment are not direct causes of criminal activity, consideration should be given to how they aggravate other triggers of criminal behaviour: inequality, exclusion, and lack of opportunity – be it education or employment – all add to the susceptibility towards crime. These are factors which, with the right resources and support, can be addressed.

The conviction of children is also aggravating deeply entrenched inequalities our society already faces. Black children are still four times as likely to be arrested compared to White children.[2]

Exploitation is already misunderstood

 The age of criminal responsibility is currently 10 years old in England and Wales, the age of sexual consent is 16, and the age of majority is 18. This causes tension, distorting and compromising the safeguarding response for exploited children, particularly when criminality is involved. There is already significant misunderstanding and lack of awareness over how grooming a child occurs, the incidence of sexual exploitation, and how occurrences are treated in the legal system.

Children are largely influenced by their peer group and evidence shows that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all offences committed by young people are committed by members of gangs or groups.[3] These range from street gangs to large organised criminal groups, exploiting children by any means. We also know that many children apparently operating alone, particularly those involved in County Lines, are affiliated with some form of organised crime.

This is why we’re calling for a national child exploitation strategy – a strategy which gets to the root of how they can so easily become involved in criminal behaviour, why children are being exploited, and what can be collectively done to intervene.

Better alternatives

 Most first-time offenders do not reoffend – time and again diversion and community-based measures are shown to be the best responses to offending by young people, during a particularly vulnerable and often turbulent period of a person’s life.

19% of offences committed by children involved the possession of a weapon – a worrying proportion which has continued to increase over the past decade.[4] We know that weapons are carried often because of the gang association, exploitation, and the inability to either exit such situations or to feel safe again – we have an opportunity to intervene here.

And we have an opportunity to intervene early – It is humane and clearly preferable that we should make every effort to prevent further reoffending and set children on a healthy future path, as well as being beneficial and cost-effective for society.  The focus must be on getting them engaged in appropriate services, back into education, and addressing the complicated lifestyle factors many find themselves in – be it poverty, neglect, exploitation, or just a lack of positive role models in their lives.

A Starting Point

Society has a responsibility to protect children. By handing them a criminal record which will stay with them for life, we are creating additional barriers to a stable adult lifestyle, beyond the barriers they almost certainly already face. 

The UN sets age 14 as a minimum age for criminal responsibility and other countries have set the age much higher – 15 in Sweden, 16 in Portugal and 18 in Luxembourg. So while the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go.

[1] https://justiceinnovation.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/2019-09/minimising_labelling_final.pdf

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/862078/youth-justice-statistics-bulletin-march-2019.pdf

[3] https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/documents/wyr11/FactSheetonYouthandJuvenileJustice.pdf

[4] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/956621/youth-justice-statistics-2019-2020.pdf

Thanks for Jakob Rosen for permission to use the header image previously published on Unsplash.

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