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Raising age of criminal responsibility is only the first step

This opinion piece is over 6 years old

Juliet Harris, director of Together, analyses the decision to raise the minimum age children can be convicted of a crime

The age of criminal responsibility in Scotland is set to rise from eight to 12, under new legislation introduced to the Scottish Parliament last week.

Scotland is currently the only country in Europe where an eight-year-old can be treated as a criminal, the average age in Europe is 14-years-old. Proposals to raise the age to at least 12-years-old were widely welcomed across Scotland, with support from over 95% of respondents to the Scottish Government’s consultation. The Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill - if passed - will finally bring Scotland in line with the ‘absolute minimum’ age considered acceptable by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Juliet Harris
Juliet Harris

Whilst raising the age to 12-years-old is only a first step, it’s an important step. This is welcome recognition that labelling a young child as a criminal doesn’t lead to better outcomes for the child, or for those affected by the child’s actions. It’s an acknowledgement that almost all young children who commit offences are victims themselves of abuse, trauma, neglect and violence.

Whilst some people argue that even young children can tell the difference between right and wrong, this is certainly not the case when the life experiences of children involved in offending are taken into account. An examination of the cases of 100 children aged eight to 11 referred to a Children’s Hearing on offence grounds found that 39% of these children had disabilities and physical and/or mental health problems; 53% had concerns recorded about their educational achievement, attendance or behaviour in school; and 25% had been victims of physical and/or sexual abuse.

Whilst these children are not currently prosecuted in Scotland, information about an offence accepted or established through a Children’s Hearing can continue to appear on their Disclosure Certificate or Protection of Vulnerable Groups scheme record well into adulthood. This can cause difficulties in later life when they apply for educational courses or attempt to pursue certain careers.

Children are often unaware of the long-term implications of accepting or having an offence ground established at the time of the original incident. The majority of children being brought before a Children’s Hearing on offence grounds for offences committed between the ages of eight and 11 will not go on to re-offend.

As a member of the Children’s Parliament said, in response to the consultation:

“You’re literally not even double figures yet! We learn from our mistakes. We are not perfect. I don’t want to not be employed for a job because I done an offence when I was eight.”

Labelling these young children as criminals has disastrous consequences in how they view themselves and in how others see them. There is evidence to show that it actually makes them more likely to continue offending. Again, as the Children’s Parliament said so eloquently:

“It is important to recognise how people grow and change […] to give them a chance to prove that they can be positive members of society, not expect the worst of them”.

Juliet Harris is director of Together, the Scottish alliance for children's rights