Don’t Prosecute Children Under 14, Says Top Adviser

Thousands of young criminals should be spared incarceration, according to a proposal by a senior government adviser to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14. In a paper to be published this week by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Rob Allen says children should be counselled and placed in the care of the social services, rather than labelled as criminals. Under his proposals some of Britain’s most notorious offenders would have escaped public trial and long custodial sentences.

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were 10 when they murdered James Bulger, a two year old, in 1993, and served eight years. Mary Bell, who as a child in 1968 murdered two young boys, served 12 years.

In his paper, Allen, who was appointed to the Youth Justice Board in 1998, and has advised four home secretaries — Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid — says Britain has the lowest age of criminal responsibility of all G8 countries apart from America.

The age when children are deemed to know the difference between right and wrong is eight in Scotland, 10 in England and Wales, 12 in Canada, 13 in France, 14 in Germany, Japan and Russia and 15 in Italy. Elsewhere it varies, from six in some American states to 18 in parts of South America.

Allen argues that children aged 10-14 accused of crimes should be dealt with by the family courts. He maintains that civil court orders, rather than a criminal conviction, should be used where compulsory care or supervision is needed.

He dismissed the approach of Reid, revealed in leaked Home Office e-mails in which he advocated using the army to deal with young offenders, as showing “how far from reality the government has become”.

But critics believe Allen’s plans are misjudged. Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust and a serving British Transport police officer, said crimes that 30 years ago were being committed by those in their late teens were now being carried out by those years younger.

“There are a number of stabbings, rapes and murders carried out by children as young as 10,” he said. “Even youngsters as young as 12 or 14 are carrying firearms and knives. Many of them, aged 11 and 12, know their rights almost as well as we know their rights. Some of them even know their lawyer by their first name.”

More than 18,000 children aged 10-15 received court sentences in 2004. Of the 600 aged 12-15 who went into custody, most had committed burglary, robbery or theft. Fewer than one in ten were convicted of sex and violent crimes.

Allen says those aged 14-16 should not be incarcerated. In all cases involving those aged 14- 18 special prosecutors should consider ways of “diverting” the offenders to social care or other counselling or treatment programmes. They would appear before a youth offender panel and sign a year-long contract to keep to the conditions of their sentence.

An increasing number of young offenders have received custodial sentences, fines or community penalties since Labour came to power. In 1998 it removed the presumption that those under 14 did not know the difference between right and wrong.

The Tories have taken a more liberal approach to teenage offenders with David Cameron urging society to be more compassionate towards “hoodies”.

Allen conceded that a “sceptical” public and media would believe his proposal was just “being soft”, but added: “I believe it provides a framework which is more likely to meet the underlying problem so it would contribute in the longer term to making society safer.”

An aide to Reid said this weekend that the Home Office was not planning to change the law.