The Student
England’s Youth Criminal Justice System Needs Reform
by Millie Lord, 1/12/19

Youth criminal justice: it is beginning to seem as though England, yet again, is lagging behind. Not only behind major international bodies like the United Nations and European Union, but also other members of its own Union. And, it continues to ignore the recommendations of its own legal experts.

Scotland is acting differently. In the past month, the Scottish parliament has raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12. The Former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales called for the same, following several years of English resistance to UN pressures to raise the age from our current archaic standard of 10 years old. Within the EU, we have the youngest age of criminal responsibility, with most other member-states age at 14.

The inability of young children to understand criminality, as well as the lifelong and far-reaching consequences of premature criminalisation, have been well established for many years, yet somehow England is still falling behind. Some have argued that our more traditional outlook on this, which has barely changed since the 1960s, has resisted reform since the shocking murder of James Bulgur by two ten year olds in the 1990s, a period when the British legal system was underoging a series of reforms. The anger from this crime, and the pure disbelief surrounding the youth of the perpetrators, sent shockwaves through the UK — understandably. But one anomalous case should not be used over twenty years later to justify a system that is more likely to create future criminals, rather than rehabilitate them. 

It is important to question whether or not children younger than 12 can truly understand the consequences of their actions, let alone understand the nuances of right and wrong in a legal or criminal context. According to specialists, the developmental milestones that children aged 10 are reaching include beginning to understand different points of view, and starting to push boundaries. Although children at this age may be beginning to understand crime and right against wrong, they are nowhere near developed enough to understand the nuances of such concepts. If we see the state as fulfilling some form of parental guidance, the solution to young crime committers should not be to penalise them for life, or forcing them to undertake a traumatising trial. Instead, we should educate them, ensure their home life is stable enough to care for them. If children are pushing boundaries to the extent of illegality, they are clearly experiencing problems, but at a young age it is evident that early intervention must take place in a non-threatening way. It must avoid institutionalising children.

And more, regardless of a child’s understanding of crime, the answer to deviance in young people should not be a permanent criminal record, criminalisation and the court system. The court system is designed for adults, it is simply not a place that will help children understand the wrongs they have committed.

The lack of reform links back to the universal problem within the UK justice system: that it often seems to focus far more on punitive measures than rehabilitative factors, which in fact simply leads to higher rates of recidivism. Although raising the age of criminal responsibility is only one of many changes that need to be made, starting with the youth is crucial, to ensure people are not alienated by society before they have even developed into adults.

Image: dcastor via Wikimedia