Leading article: Juvenile crime and punishment

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The Independent Online

You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats its children. In England and Wales the law says that a child is not capable of committing a criminal offence until they reach the age of 10. Before Labour came to power in 1997, there was a long-established legal presumption that a child under the age of 14 did not know the difference between right and wrong. This kept the prosecution of young people within sensible bounds, because a court had to be satisfied that it was in the interests of justice to convict the child.

Under the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998 this safeguard was swept away as the Government embarked on its mission to shift the balance of the criminal justice system in favour of the victim. But it is Britain's children who have become the unintended victims of this change. The number of young people dealt with in the criminal courts has risen exponentially - from 79,092 in 1997 to 96,188 in 2004.

And these are not young people randomly drawn from society, but children brought up in the most deprived circumstances, many from broken - or non-existent - homes. Now, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has argued for another rethink of our approach to the prosecution and punishment of children. It called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14 and for an end to a system of "cops, courts and corrections".

Such a reform would have the virtue of bringing us in line with our European partners, including France and Germany. In Italy, a country whose love for its children is internationally celebrated, the age of criminal responsibility is 15. It is also worth noting that in all these countries the rates of criminal conviction for young people are much lower than they are in Britain.

More to the point, a change of approach now might save a whole generation from careers in crime. Any reform, though, would need to be adequately supported by funds, and by alternative proceedings that addressed a child's educational, social welfare and mental health needs. Not for the first time, a government initiative has turned out to have adverse consequences that might have been foreseen, had more thought been given to the less obvious effects. Reducing the age of criminal responsibility has turned out to be just another legislative measure that makes our children old before their time.

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