CHILDREN as young as eight are being landed with criminal records that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, despite the age from which they can be prosecuted being 12.
A charity has warned that the youngsters will face restrictions on jobs and travel in adulthood because of their actions today.
The Scottish Government is coming under increasing pressure to amend the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through parliament.
The minority SNP government raised the age of criminal prosecution to 12 during the last parliamentary term. Until then, children as young as eight could be prosecuted through the children’s hearing system – one of the youngest levels in Europe.
However, the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, which raised the age of criminal prosecution, left the age of criminal responsibility at eight.
Over the past two years, 39 children aged between eight and 11 have received criminal records, including one eight-year-old in 2012-13.
Children’s charity Barnardo’s warned that the effects on the lives of the youngsters affected can be devastating.
Mark Ballard, assistant director of Barnardo’s Scotland, said: “This loophole is a consequence of failing to recognise the long-term impact on a relatively small group of people.
“Yes, they have done wrong. But they may be unaware of the long-term consequences and their actions at eight on the rest of their life.
“We’re talking about restrictions on jobs and travel to some countries, such as the United States. But the biggest concern is this material will be available to anyone who asks for a PVG (Protecting Vulnerable Groups) disclosure check.”
The former Green MSP added: “At the church I go to on a Sunday, as a parent I occasionally do Sunday school duty.
“If I had admitted to an offence when I was aged eight, the church elders would know about it.
So people will not engage in these kinds of activities.”
He urged MSPs to add a change in the age of criminal responsibility to the raft of measures currently making up the justice bill which are being debated at Holyrood.
“We think there’s an opportunity in the justice bill to close this loophole,” Ballard said. “It will not affect a large number of children, but for those it does it will make a massive difference.”
There were 3,636 Scottish children referred to the Children’s Reporter in 2012-13. The majority of those children were aged 13 to 16, but well over 100 were aged eight to 11.
The most common type of alleged offences were assault, vandalism, or threatening or abusive behaviour.
It is up to the Children’s Reporter to decide whether to refer cases on for hearings.
The children’s hearing system is designed to help rather than punish a child. When children are under 12 they cannot be punished by law. However, it is believed this can make them more
likely to plead guilty.
Sources say that some parents, knowing that their child will not be punished, encourage them to admit to wrong-doing in the hope of speeding up the process.
There are measures in the Children’s Hearing Act (Scotland) 2011 which can limit disclosure of offences.
However, this would require a non-disclosure request for every organisation the person hopes will not find out about their history.
Christine Grahame MSP, convener of the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, has previously cast doubt on whether the changes demanded by Barnardo’s could be included in the justice bill.
She told a committee meeting: “It is doubtful whether, at this stage, we and the government would have the mechanism or the time to test the proposition thoroughly so that we could get it right, so I am not sure that it would be appropriate to insert it at this stage.”
However, Liberal Democrat Alison McInnes MSP, a justice committee member, is considering tabling an amendment to the bill which would make this change.
She said: “Liberal Democrats have argued for many years that increasing the age of criminal responsibility will help children out of a future life of crime and help communities.
“Children’s behaviour can be more effectively dealt with inside the hearing system.”
The Scottish Government yesterday indicated it is not opposed in principle to a change in the law.
A spokeswoman said: “We will consider calls made for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to increase, with a view to any increase being made in the lifetime of this parliament.”
Margaret Mitchell MSP: Issue of parenting has to be key
WHATEVER your view on increasing the age of criminal responsibility, the issue of parenting has to be absolutely key.
We have seen many sets of worrying figures in recent years on the number of
such young children actively and consciously engaging in a criminal lifestyle.
The question always asked is: “Where are the parents?”
That’s where the work has to be focused, to guarantee these youngsters have the correct support around them to ensure they don’t embark on the wrong path, or if they do, they can be quickly turned around.
We oppose increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 12.
The fact remains, if someone is old enough to wreak misery on a community and inflict huge damage on people’s lives, they are old enough to face the consequences.
It is understandable that a variety of groups seeking to support young people put forward arguments for the age of criminal responsibility to be increased.
But equally, those affected by the unacceptable behaviour of these youngsters must be protected
and confident that their safety and wellbeing are taken into account and safeguarded.
Quite simply, if children minded towards violence, offending and disorder enter their teens thinking they will get away with whatever they do, that mindset is likely to
continue for the rest of their lives.
That approach is not in the best interests for the future of a safe Scotland and it is why early intervention is so important.
• Margaret Mitchell is Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman
Alison Todd: Labelling children can be risky
LABELLING children as criminals from an early age can have extremely negative consequences. Instead, we need to recognise that they and their families need support and help to
address the causes of their
problematic behaviour in order to prevent any further offending. Legislation labelling children as young as eight as criminals allows our justice system to treat them as such and can have far reaching consequences.
Scottish ministers committed in Do the right thing progress report 2012 to address this issue. It states: “Following the raising of the age of criminal prosecution in the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, we will give fresh consideration to raising the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12 with a view to bringing forward any legislative change in this Parliament.” We would like the Scottish Government to act on this commitment.
• Alison Todd is director of children and family services at Children 1st