Unanimous support from MSPs for raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 is a welcome sign that Scotland is getting into line with accepted international standards.
Scotland currently has the youngest age of criminal responsibility in Europe. An eight-year-old child suspected of committing a crime can be arrested by a police officer, taken to a police station for questioning, and then later charged with the alleged offence.
Yesterday MSPs voted unanimously to bring Scotland into line with much of the rest of the world by backing a Bill to raise the age at which this can happen to 12 – considered to be “the absolute minimum” by the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In a report in 2007, the committee noted there were “a wide range of minimum ages of criminal responsibility” around the world “from a very low level of age seven or eight to the commendable high level of age 14 or 16”.
“A minimum age of criminal responsibility below the age of 12 years is considered by the committee not to be internationally acceptable,” it added, urging states to adopt at least 12 but then “continue to increase it to a higher age level”.
The vote in Holyrood was the first of three stages of the parliamentary process but the legislation is expected to pass easily, given the support from all parties. Indeed, the criticism of the bill was that it did not go far enough, with calls from the Liberal Democrats for the age of 14 to be adopted instead. While some will point out that the youngest age a child can currently be prosecuted in a criminal court in Scotland is 12, they still can be referred to children’s hearings and, as a result, get a criminal record because of actions taken at the age of just eight.
A consultation involving police, prosecutors and victims’ groups found that 95 per cent backed 12 – or even higher – as the age of criminal responsibility. Scotland is speaking with one voice on this issue and it’s about time.
Few children of eight to 11 will ever come to the attention of the police. Those that do are likely to have made a childish mistake, acted recklessly, been manipulated or mistreated by an adult or older child, or to be in need of psychological help. Any crimes committed may say more about their parents or guardians than the child his or herself.
And criminalising a young child will not make Scotland a safer place by acting as a deterrent because they are not going to take any potential punishment into account. A child of less than 12 who commits a crime needs help, not the full weight of the law.
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