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 259.

    I am appalled that a 10 year old could be considered to be a criminal. In the USA the age is 18, and even that is probably too young for for the late bloomers. That isn't to say that bad behavior should be ignored, but it needs to be dealt with in an educational/therapeutic way. The criminal system is totally inappropriate for a child.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I am not advocating raising or even lowering the age of criminal responsibility, but something that I have not seen any comments take into account is the age a person can be expected to understand what is happening and why - not whether they know right from wrong. But whether they are old enough to understand criminal and court proceedings - the very foundation of a fair judicial system

  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I'm horrified to hear that some people are trying to say that 10 year olds are not responsible for criminal actions. Round where I live, kids younger than that use the fact of their age to get away with all sorts of crime. They know they wont be touched and carry out assaults and other serious crimes. I say make the age lower, not higher. Punishment is not a bad thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    If criminal behaviour can be proven genetic or developmental, lets hope it can be treated rather than punished. However does this mean that we should defer the legal age for Smoking, Driving, Drinking, Sexual activity until at least 20 years old. Until the youngsters are mature enough to behave responsibly or do we wait until they have "fallen off the cliff" before intervening.


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