At what age should a person be considered responsible for criminal behaviour?
Legally as it stands, in Australia a child under 10 cannot be charged for a crime as they are considered to not have the moral development to be held responsible. And now, there is an advocate for young people who thinks that the age should be increased to 16. I found myself completely and utterly shocked when I read that.
Currently, Australia apparently has one of the lowest ages for criminal responsibility and is therefore drawing flak from the UN. As someone who works with children, I think 10 can be considered high. Especially in this day and age. And if they are seriously considering of not charging individuals with crimes till they are 12 or 14 or 16, they are kidding themselves and living in a fantasy world.
The whole reason for not holding someone responsible under the age of 10 is that they do not understand the difference between right and wrong. Kids aged between 10 and 13 can be charged but there needs to be evidence that they knew they were doing the wrong thing. The law assumes that by 14, an individual understands right from wrong and can be tried in juvenile court. [Source]
However, if you think about the research into moral and pro-social development, between the ages of 2 and 3, some children are able to show guilt for inappropriate behaviour. More importantly, by the age of 6 or 7, they understand how to behave appropriately to gain rewards and avoid punishments. In other words, they know right behaviour from wrong behaviour. [Source] Also, one of the first stages of moral development as researched by Lawrence Kohlberg is the Preconventional Stage where children learn deference to authority and in order to avoid punishment, learn right from wrong. This can be observed in children upto the age of 9. [Source]
So how does the law even begin to make sense when you consider most normally developing kids can tell right from wrong by the age of 9 at the most?? And even more bizarre is the call to increase the age of criminal responsibility.
The second stage of moral development is the Conventional reasoning stage which is seen in adolescents and adults and this involves understanding conformity to rules and how approval or disapproval from others can influence perceptions of right and wrong. In other words, it’s not about lack of understanding of right or wrong but rather how others would view us. Therefore, if you are a 12 year old who thinks you will get approval from your peers for stealing, you are more likely to do it. Even though you know the rules say stealing is a crime. But why shouldn’t a young person be charged for this? They know the rules. They know right from wrong. Yet, they succumb to approval from peers. I’m not saying someone should be gaoled for this but there is no reason for them to not be tried or charged.
Crimes by teenagers are on the rise. Teens across Australia as young as 12 and 13 are being charged for mugging, car-jackings, stabbings, driving away from police in a stolen vehicle and running into people among others. Crimes by juveniles is on the increase. And yet, not much can be done about it. And how can we forget the James Bulger case? Where the toddler was murdered by two 10 year old boys in 1993. Or the 11 year old boy who shot his pregnant stepmother in the US in 2009?
Don’t tell me these kids don’t know right from wrong. Because they do. And these are just some of the examples. There are so many more we read about every day.
There will be people who will talk about the difficult circumstances in which these kids are living in which is fair enough. But it still does not mean they need to be let go. They still need a consequence. If not juvenile detention, something. If we increase the age of criminal responsibility to 16, we are in for a whole lot of trouble. As it is, parents and teachers don’t have many rights over children. If we take away the rights of the police, what else is left? I am all for positive parenting and using rewards to improve acceptable behaviours. But they need to be balanced with consequences. Consequences that fit the action.
If that means detention for some or gaol for others, so be it.
Let’s not take away the rights of the legal system for the rights of a child.
Things have gone too far already.
What do you think my readers? Do you think the age of responsibility should be increased? Or should it be decreased?
Until next time,