Criminal age ‘should be raised to 14’

The age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 14 and new prosecutors appointed with the aim of keeping children out of jail, an expert has recommended.

Rob Allen, who has just finished eight years as head of the Youth Justice Board, warns in a new report that too many children are being sent to jail and not enough effort is being put in preventative and rehabilitation measures.

He says Labour has made progress in some areas of youth crime but condemns the increasing criminalisation of badly behaved youths – particularly as part of the ‘respect’ agenda – as “deeply disturbing”.

Currently children can be convicted of a crime at the age of ten – for example, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were both ten when they killed toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993, for which they each received an eight-year sentence.

But in a report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Mr Allen says there must be a “fundamental shift” in the way young offenders are dealt with.

He calls for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 14, and children offending below to be put into state care. The emphasis should be on rehabilitation, such as making offenders meet their victims, he says.

Mr Allen also argues custody should be phased out for 15 and 16-year-olds and replaced with up to five years of a new “residential training order”. This would be time spent in a foster home, residential school or adolescent mental health unit.

In addition, he recommends youth justice be removed from the responsibility of the Home Office to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), where the related issues of truancy and exclusion are already dealt with.

“We have seen an increasing preoccupation with protecting the public from young people and a growing intolerance of teenage misbehaviour of all kinds,” Mr Allen said.

“A genuine shift from punishment to problem-solving as the guiding principle for tackling youth crime would help to produce a society that is both safer and fairer.”

Children’s charity NCH welcomed the report and urged the government to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14. Chief executive Clare Tickell warned that sending ten-year-olds to jail failed to change their behaviour and could make it worse.

“Placing young offenders in intensive foster care rather than prison works – the first boy in Britain to successfully complete a year-long programme run by NCH has recently passed his GCSEs,” she said.

“This alternative to custody can turn young people’s lives around and help them break free from the cycle of crime forever.”

However, a Home Office spokeswoman said the department had no plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility, saying the current system allowed early intervention to help young people “develop a sense of personal responsibility for their misbehaviour”.

But she added: “The government is committed to reducing youth offending and diverting young people away from crime at the earliest possible opportunity.

“Custody should always be a last resort. The government works alongside the Youth Justice Board in close partnership with statutory, voluntary and community organisations to prevent children and young people from offending in the first place.”