CHARLES GRAHAM - The criminal young

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IT’S only a few weeks since I was making a case for treating young perpetrators of serious crime with a little more leniency and leeway than adults.

I was speaking after another of the teen killers of Wigan takeaway owner Mi Gao Huang Chen received a slight sentence cut for good behaviour. Also drawn into the argument were the tender years of toddler James Bulger’s killers and how different people can be as adults from how they were as children.

However, I have never argued against prosecuting children for crimes at all.

The current law states that the age of criminal responsibility is nine, so any youngster below that threshold cannot be taken to court for any offence.

No system is ideal and it could be argued that some eight-year-olds are more mature than other 11-year-olds. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere and nine seems to be as good as any.

However, the Government has been considering this week the recommendations of the Centre for Social Justice which calls for the age of criminal responsibility be increased to 12.

The suggestion has also won the support of no fewer than 33 experts on children’s legal issues including Children’s Commissioner Dr Maggie Atkinson.

It is based on new research that says that the brains of under-13s are too immature to gauge the consequence of their actions.

I don’t think it too controversial to suggest that most juvenile offenders come from the less intellectually gifted end of the child talent spectrum. But I think that if a youngster doesn’t know right from wrong by the age of 10 and can’t appreciate that if they criminally misbehave innocent victims will get distressed or come to harm, they must have quite severe learning difficulties.

Figures released in 2010 showed 346 children of 10 and 11 were found guilty of sex offences over the past five years. Another 114 were convicted of violence over a three-year period while 176 faced burglary charges, 214 for criminal damage and 59 for arson.

If the Centre for Social Justice had had its way all these hundreds of youngsters as well as Jamie Bulger’s killers would have walked free without censure.

God knows how many more hideous crimes they might have gone on to commit if left unchecked.

I am sure the Government will give this idea the short shrift it deserves. Not only does it under-estimate youngsters’ powers of comprehension, it would also lead to the committing of many more crimes by children given completely the wrong message by our justice system.