CHILDREN AND CRIME : Experts call for a system to deal with young offenders

Stephen Ward examines some concerns the judgment raises
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Many experts in child development and criminology expressed concern yesterday that the law restored by the Law Lords left it to the courts to make complex psychological judgements about the moral awareness of a young child.

Many believed too that the existing penal system is not seen as the best way to deliver the appropriate punishment or treatment to stop child offenders inevitably becoming adult villains.

Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium - an umbrella group of 24 organisations, last night welcomed the age of criminality being raised again from 10. He said: "In most other West European countries, and throughout the USA, children of this age who commit offences do not appear before criminal courts. They are dealt with by civil court proceedings concerned with the need for compulsory measures of care.

"In particularly serious cases this can include long-term detention in secure accommodation. Many foreign commentators are amazed that children of this age, accused of serious offences, can be dealt with by an adult- style Crown Court criminal trial."

According to the National Children's Bureau, criminal responsibility starts at 14 in Germany, 15 in Denmark and Sweden, 16 in Spain and 18 in Belgium. The bureau says society could be protected from child killers, such as the murderers of the Liverpool toddler James Bulger, under the care provisions in section 31 of the 1989 Children Act. In Scotland the age is eight.

Allan Levy QC, a barrister specialising in child law, described the compromise as "a sneaking recognition that 10 as an age is too low, but without the fortitude to alter the law.

"In this range between 10 and 14 there's a presumption of no responsibility, but the prosecution are given the opportunity to prove it."

Mr Levy believes there is a danger that magistrates and judges might look at the social background of the child and decide that a middle-class offender was more likely to know right from wrong.

Robert Broudie, the solicitor representing Boy C - the child in the Law Lords' judgment, thought that the majority of children over 10 did know the difference between right and wrong, but the Lords compromise was about right.

He said: "You must have safeguards. It would have been terrible in the Bulger case if the prosecution had not had to prove that the two boys who killed him knew that what they were doing was wrong.

"It's important in a civilised society to recognise the differences between a child and an adult."

But he added that it was a "difficult area" to try to draw that line. He was adamant that if criminality were to be lowered, there had to be a wider change. "I think it is preferable for there to be a separate system to deal with children."

Medical experts agree that the age of criminality is a difficult one to define. Dr Susan Bailey, a forensic psychiatrist who has dealt with hundreds of child criminals including 20 who have killed, believes that most 10-year-old offenders have not reached full moral maturity and that there is a wide range between different children of the same age.

"Between the age of 10 and 14, there is a tremendous range of developments within youngsters," she told BBC Radio 4's File on Four programme.

"They develop cognitively, emotionally and psychologically, and I think one of the key elements is that during that time most youngsters develop the capacity to move from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. The ability to have abstract thoughts is associated with your ability to think through what the consequences of the action are when you're committing a crime. So it is a critical and central area."