The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales should be raised from 10 to 14, and offences committed by children under 14 dealt with by social care, according to a report published this week.
The Prison Reform Trust-commissioned study said young offenders needed a welfare-based approach and that social services should engage with vulnerable families at the earliest stage to prevent or reduce the likelihood of children offending.
Children aged under 14 who offend should be dealt with by social care agencies to ensure their welfare is safeguarded and, where appropriate, referrals to health and social care should be made alongside prosecution for those aged 14 and above, the report said.
The recommendations follow calls this week from Barnardo’s to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 in England and Wales, apart from for the most serious offences. Scotland already plans to raise its limit to 12.
Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey said criminalising young children increased the risk of reoffending.
The Prison Reform Trust report highlighted the “damaged and disadvantaged” backgrounds of the majority of children in custody across England and Wales. Based on a census of 6,000 children sentenced and remanded to custody between July and December 2008, it is the biggest survey of its kind for 25 years.
It found more than a quarter of the children had experienced local authority care, half lived in a deprived household or unsuitable accommodation and more than a quarter had witnessed domestic violence.
One-fifth were known to have harmed themselves, while 11% had attempted suicide and 12% had suffered the death of a parent or sibling.
Penelope Gibbs, director of the trust’s Out of Trouble campaign to reduce child imprisonment, said: “This report says loud and clear that the solutions to reducing offending by children and young people lie outside the sphere of criminal justice.
“Children who offend need to understand the harm and damage they have caused, and make amends. But they also need huge amounts of help and support,” she said.
“All this can be done without involving the youngest in the criminal justice system. If the age of criminal responsibility were raised, millions of pounds could be saved which could then be re-invested in helping these children turn their lives around”.
Nearly two-thirds of the public do not want to see children locked up behind bars until at least the age of 12, rising to 14 for young people convicted of a non-violent crime, according to a YouGov poll commissioned by the Out of Trouble campaign.
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