Barnardo’s: The age of criminal responsibility should be raised

The criminal justice system is not effective at dealing with children and young people. Evidence shows that about half of the 10 and 11 year olds sentenced in court in 2008 will have re-offended within a year – and their experience within the criminal justice system actually increases the likelihood that they will go on to commit further crimes.

Puja Darbari is UK director, policy, research and media, Barnardo’s

The criminal justice system is not effective at dealing with children and young people. Evidence shows that about half of the 10 and 11 year olds sentenced in court in 2008 will have re-offended within a year – and their experience within the criminal justice system actually increases the likelihood that they will go on to commit further crimes.

Barnardo’s is urging the government to use their review of sentencing and rehabilitation to look into reforming the way the criminal justice system deals with young offenders.

In particular, the age of criminal responsibility should be raised from 10 to 12 for all but the most serious crimes – for example murder and rape. We do believe that on the rare occasions children commit the most serious crimes prosecution remains an appropriate option.

Instead of dealing with minor crimes using the criminal justice system, however, a system of challenging interventions that involve the whole family should be adopted.

Approaches such as family intervention projects (FIPs) challenge and support parents and their children to face up to their behaviour and accept responsibility for their actions. And for those families who do not co-operate there are robust civil orders available – either parenting or child safety orders – to compel them to engage.

Barnardo’s runs more than 40 services supporting children and families on the edge of the criminal justice system, including 11 family intervention projects. We know from experience that families who engage fully with these services are able to turn their lives around – and the recent evaluation of FIPs shows that during the last year 79 per cent of interventions were classed as ‘successful’.

In a time when all parties are looking to rein in public spending, it is worth considering the financial implications of the current, failing system. Take James, a 16-year-old boy serving his second custodial sentence. The Audit Commission has quantified the cost of offending, finding that expenditure by the state caused by James’s offending totalled £154,000. This includes the cost of repeat court appearances and custody.

But the costs of interventions to tackle his behaviour, similar to those we are recommending, would have been just £42,000 over the same period – and could have avoided some or all of his offending. That is just one individual: but analysis carried out by the last government and accepted by the present one shows that around £45 million could be saved if the measures we propose reduce youth crime by just 1 per cent.

Our proposals are a strong alternative. We are not arguing that children at 10 do not know the difference between right and wrong, but we are insisting that family based approaches are much more likely to be effective at preventing further crime than the conviction of the child on his or her own.

If we have a more effective way of tackling youth crime why wouldn’t we use it?

• If you’d like to join us in calling for a criminal justice system that works, visit our website and email Ken Clarke.

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