Criminal Responsibility of Adolescents: Youth as Junior Citizenship
Children below a certain age are too young to be held responsible for breaking the law. There is wide consensus about this principle, which is spelled out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and in other international standards, such as the Beijing Rules for juvenile justice. The Convention calls for nations to establish a minimum age “below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law”. And since the beginning of this year (2008) it sets 12 as the minimum age, explicitly. Worldwide, though, there is continuing debate about the appropriate age. This debate too often tends to arise when exceptional cases involving children who have committed heinous offences are given prominent coverage by the media. Sometimes this has far-reaching consequences.
In England, children have become fully accountable for offending at 10 since the murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two young boys, both 10, in 1993. In New South Wales, the 1999 manslaughter trial of an 11-year-old boy for throwing his 6-year-old companion into a river attracted widespread comment and the NSW Attorney-General started a review of the age of criminal responsibility of children. In Japan, the minimum age was lowered from 16 to 14 in 2001 following public outrage over the brutal beheading of a little boy by a 14-year-old in 1997. The murder of another youth by a 12-year-old in 2003 in Nagasaki prompted the discussion again. In the USA, the state of Arkansas lowered the age at which young people could be tried as adults for murder to age 11, after an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old killed a youth with rifles at the entrance to their school. In the Czech Republic the minimum age is 15, but the Minister of Justice is considering lowering the age for particularly serious crimes, since in August 2006, six boys under the age of 15 robbed and killed an elderly woman and in February 2007 a 14-year-old boy confessed to the rape and murder of a classmate.