Politicians are asking at what age children who break the law should be treated as criminals. Certainly some children start early. However, when should we start giving them criminal records? Up to now the answer in Scotland has been 8 years old. That is out of line with most other countries. Do we honestly believe that a three year old has the ability to distinguish between an action which is self indulgent, exciting or just plain feels good and the intent to commit a crime? While our children may very well understand that a particular action is naughty, unacceptable or just plain bad they will have no understanding of criminal intent.
Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Bill and whether we should continue to consider a child as young as eight to be capable of committing a criminal act. Ken Macintosh MSP highlighted “there are some children—perhaps as young as eight—who, because they accepted grounds read out to them at a children's panel at a very young age, carry a criminal record well into adulthood; perhaps to the age of 40. I found it particularly odd that children who have enough sense of shame and of right and wrong to accept their wrongdoing—and who one could argue are therefore the most likely to turn their behaviour around—can be labelled with a criminal record, whereas a child who denies any wrongdoing or any misbehaviour can end up with no information against their name".
There is evidence that young children can behave in ways which would be seen as criminal in adults. To consider looking at children below the age of eight in relation to criminality is not just inappropriate; it witnesses to our inability as a society to truly care for our young. Giving a child a criminal record can be very detrimental to their future development and applying the formal justice system may actually contribute to a rise in young offenders, which is precisely what we should be preventing. I agree with Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner Tam Baillie when he says “It’s not appropriate to look at children below the age of eight in relation to criminality.”
We will not change the behaviour of 8 year olds by giving then a criminal record.We will be more effective if we focus on what caused them to act like that in the first place. Early intervention within the family unit combined with court-ordered welfare measures such as care and control orders seem to be the way forward. All of that may cost more money in the short term but the long term, results will save us a lot of cash and pain.