Age of criminal responsibility 'too low', experts say

Scan of a brain Some parts of the brain are not fully mature "until at least the age of 20"

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Advances in neuroscience suggest the age of criminal responsibility - 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - might be too low, according to a study.

The Royal Society report considers areas where recent scientific findings could have an impact on the law.

At the age of 10 parts of the brain connected with decision-making and judgement are still developing, the study says.

But it says there are limits to how the science can be used in court.

Professor Nicholas Mackintosh, who chaired the working group that compiled the study, said: "There's now incontrovertible evidence that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence."

He said some regions of the brain - including parts responsible for decision-making and impulse control - are not fully mature "until at least the age of 20".

"Now that clearly has some implications for how adolescents behave," he said.

The report notes the concern of some neuroscientists that the current age of criminal responsibility in the UK is set too low. In most European countries it is far higher - 18 in Belgium and 16 in Spain.

It also suggests that because of differences between individuals a cut-off age may not be justifiable.

'Fresh look needed'

Professor Mackintosh said it was for policy makers to decide on altering the age of responsibility, but the changing science meant it should at least be reviewed.

He said: "I think the Royal Society is in a position to present the scientific evidence - other people need to draw conclusions from it.

"But the extent to which the scientific evidence wasn't well known 10, 15 years ago, then it suggests that things do need looking at again."

The study identifies areas where expectations of what neuroscience can deliver in courts should be handled with caution.

Claims that criminals can be identified by imaging their brains, or that there could be a gene for psychopathy are "wide of the mark", it says.

In Scotland children cannot be convicted until they are 12. In Northern Ireland, a review of the youth justice system recommends increasing the age to 12.

Calls from England's children's commissioner to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 were rejected by the government in in March 2010.

At the time, Maggie Atkinson said most criminals under 12 did not fully understand their actions.

She also said civilised society should recognise that children who commit offences needed to be treated differently from adult criminals.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    There is no minimun age for criminal responsibility. It's at what age the parents responsiblity finishes. Education / morality / correction should be taught from birth onwards.
    Few people are naturally really bad, just as few people are naturally really good. The key is to guide the majority from an early age, identifying the potentially "bad uns'" and save as many as possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    #18. Correct but the government will not promote marriage and appears to believe kids 'benefit' from being dragged from the breast into nursery school as soon possible.'Parenthood' is not so much undervalued as totally ignored,something to be fitted in when work allows.Until that changes nothing else will I'm afraid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Too Low?

    Who knows! This article is missing a crucial piece of information. "..some regions of the brain..not fully mature until at least the age of 20".

    Okay, the apples on my tree are not fully mature until September, but they are 95% usable by mid July.

    Without knowing the scale of difference, this is a moot debate. I wonder if it was quantified in the original research?

    Journos, eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Feral children.... another great excuse. ADHD fantastic label. This story...well I don't see it has any relation to reality.

    A child's background, upbringing and social status does not mean a thing. Its the old cliche "respect" that's gone. For parents, authority and in education. That's why some children go off the rails so badly.

    Thank you Liberals...I actually blame you!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Little_Old_Me said "What's the betting this comment thread soon fills up with people ..." bla bla.

    What's the betting that you are in the minority with your liberal views that somehow manage to find a social excuse for everything, without ever understanding the term 'personal responsibility'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Nothing has changed since I was a child. I knew right from wrong from a very early age, it never stopped me from making unwise decisions. This is the kicker though, I'm now 52 and still can make bad decisions; I still still see it as part of the learning process. Now as an adult I have to accept the consequences of poor decisions. Let kids grow up without another excuse for poor behaviour!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I'm often appalled by the lack of any reasoned debate on this board. And the ignorance of the hysterical "The Sun/Daily Mail/Express" tabloid mindset of most comments. A new low seems to have been reached here and I'd advise a good watch of the Barnado's 'feral children' advert.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Absence of responsibility is not acceptable.

    When a child is young, the parents should be held responsible for its actions.

    A child of ten may be less able to understand responsibility, but if never out of sight of parents or teachers will not get into serious trouble.

    The problem is that incompetent parents tend to stand back and let their children cause mayhem and currently get away with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    School should start at 5 not 3.Two parents are better than one,one at home and one at work.Discipline in school must include physical punishment when required.These are possible answers to the problems,fiddling with the age of responsibility resolves nothing.If kids do not know right from wrong at ten does that not prove our current approach to raising kids is flawed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    9. Dai-L
    13. thearchbish

    My parents hit me as a child aswel.. if i did something wrong. i will tell you it helped change my attitude and my behaviour. I think if a kid also mis-behaves nothing gets them in line like a smack.. i am not saying beat your child up but a simple clip is all that is needed. it a proven and effective method

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Lowering the age of criminal responsibility is fine, so long as someone is held responsible for the crimes of children - how about their parents (or should that be parent, in the singular?)

    My kids (5 & 9) know very well what's right and wrong, and I wish the 'Daily Mirror' brigade would stop making excuses for feral kids and useless parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Knowing right from wrong starts much much younger.

    If you want to raise the age of criminal responsibility that is fine, but the RESPONSIBILITY for the actions rest with the parents and they are held criminally liable to the same extent as if they did the crime.

    I think that may solve a few problems!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The victims of crime should come first, ask them whether they want the criminal to be absolved from responsibility on the basis that he/she is under 12. If they are to be absolved, then the parent(s) living with the child should take responsibility. If you aren't willing to take responsibility for your child, then don't have one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Just another excuse to allow the kids to get away with it. These so-called 'experts' have done much to make our judicial system worthless.
    As a child I knew that if I stepped out of line I would face the gym shoe or the cane. We learned to behave ourselves back then.
    The cure for ADHD was a smack round the head. And it worked!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Meanwhile in the real world, we know that most children over the age of 10 who commit crime know EXACTLY that what they do is wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    "some regions of the brain - including parts responsible for decision-making and impulse control - are not fully mature"

    For some adults it seems that these regions of the brain are never mature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    If you ask me. the crime age (serious crime) should be as low as it needs.. lesser crime maybe a little lax below ages say 12 (at 12 if your not responsible enough to know what your doing you shouldn't be out.. as simple as that.

    If you do the crime you should pay the time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The problem starts with the parents. I as a kid if i did something wrong got a slap from from my parents and quite hard too! The youngsters today need to be taught a lesson in what is right and wrong. Booze, Cigs and Drugs are too easy to come by today. If a person does a crime - do the time SIMPLES! Give the Police more powers to deal with the youth

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I've just remembered I used to run a youth club and was horrified. There were 10 Year olds celebrating their birthdays with cigarettes, Alcohol & drugs regularly. Every Friday the bus shelters were smashed as they made their way home. They knew it was wrong and that's why they did it. However almost all behaviour is learned. Smoking/Drinking - Mum & Dad. Drugs & Vandalism - Rougher Friends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    A lot of adults struggle to make the right decision and are easily lead. As for children we need to take an approach which promotes training/education as the punishment for crime based on the effect their offences have on victims. The young offenders should be shown what the habitual criminals suffer such as the inside of the Young offenders institutes. When it comes to crime think victim first.


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