Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: shame of our child criminal suspects

By Adrian Rutherford

Children aged as young as four-years-old have been questioned by police for assault and motoring offences in a long list of shocking new figures, The Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.

The suspects behind dozens of crimes including arson, GBH and burglary have gone unpunished — because they are too young to be prosecuted, the Belfast Telegraph can exclusively reveal.

Shocking statistics released by the PSNI reveal how young children — some not even old enough to attend primary school — are becoming involved in serious criminal activity.

They include two four-year-olds questioned over a motoring offence and a boy aged just three who was suspected of criminal damage.

In the last 12 months, at least 46 offences were linked to children aged under 10.

However, none of the suspects ever appeared in court because they were below the age of criminal responsibility and therefore too young to be prosecuted.

The figures have prompted claims that parents who allow their children to become involved with crime at such a young age are guilty of neglect.

According to PSNI documents, officers questioned 221 children aged nine and under in the three years to April this year.

The offences covered 14 categories, ranging from criminal damage and theft to serious crime, including arson and possession of an offensive weapon.

The youngest suspect was aged just three — young enough to still be at playschool.

Among the most shocking incidents were two four-year-old girls involved in an unspecified motoring offence. A boy aged six was also quizzed over another motoring offence.

Currently, the minimum age to drive in Northern Ireland is 17.

Meanwhile, a girl aged nine was detained for an alcohol-related offense — even though the legal age to purchase alcohol here is 18.

A four-year-old boy was questioned in the last year over assault, while children as young as seven were suspected of arson, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, and possession of an offensive weapon.

Two nine-year-olds were suspected of burglary while a boy aged eight was questioned over grievous bodily harm.

If a child is nine or under, they cannot be charged with an offence. However, the crime is still recorded by police.

The chairman of the Stormont Justice committee, Lord Morrow, said that he was shocked by the figures, adding they raised serious questions over parental responsibility.

“These are very worrying statistics,” Lord Morrow told the Belfast Telegraph.

“In circumstances where children of these ages are involved in crime, there is a clear issue of appropriate parenting and supervision.

“This is child neglect in its rawest form.

“I would be interested to learn if all these cases were reported to social services which, I understand, is PSNI policy, and if the relevant agencies have taken steps for the children and against the parents and guardians.

“I will be taking this matter up in the Assembly because there are serious questions here which must be answered.”

The age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland — which is the same as England and Wales — is the lowest in Europe.

However, it emerged last month that plans to raise it to 12 here will be considered as part of a major review of the youth justice system.

That would bring us into line with the Republic and Scotland, where the age threshold was raised from eight to 12 this year.

Any rise would cause controversy because it would mean in future the likes of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson — who were both 10 when they killed two-year-old James Bulger — would escape conviction.

The review team intends to produce a report for public consultation by March 2011.

While child offenders escape court, is there a case for raising the age limit?

Nearly 200 children suspected of crime have escaped court because they are too young to be prosecuted, but in the future that total may be much higher.

Currently a child cannot be charged and brought to court if they are under 10, but there are plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland to 12.

That could see hundreds of young offenders escape punishment or detention every year.

According to separate PSNI statistics, some 359 offences were committed by children aged 10 or 11 in the last three years.

These covered crimes including sex offences, burglary, theft and criminal damage.

Yet, if the age was raised in Northern Ireland, none of the suspects would be charged and the cases would never make it to court. Increasing the age threshold by two years would bring us into line with Scotland and most of Europe.

It had been eight in Scotland, but was increased earlier this year.

Justice Secretary for Scotland Kenny MacAskill said it did not mean “letting off” younger offenders, but said dealing with them in the children's hearings system was more appropriate.

The justification for an age threshold is to prevent the |prosecution of children who are too young to understand the |seriousness or nature of their acts.

The problem comes in cases of serious crime — such as murder and rape — with critics claiming that an offender must have known the gravity of their offending.

In September the head of the children's charity Barnardo’s called for the age to be raised in the rest of the UK — in England and Wales it is also 10 — except for serious crime.

Martin Narey said: “There is nothing to be gained from criminalising very young children for less serious offences and putting them through a court process they can barely fathom.”

His proposals exclude rape, murder, manslaughter and serious sex crime, meaning children such as Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who were 10 when they killed James Bulger, would still face prosecution.

However, others disagree with any raising of the age. Criminologists claim there is a danger that gangs could try to recruit 11-year-olds, knowing they cannot be prosecuted.

We need to look past the statistics and delve into what’s gone wrong

By Rosemary Craig

Children and young people can be victims of crime in different ways.

Sometimes, unfortunately, they can become involved in crime which is a great shame and indictment on society.

A child under the age of 10 should not be brought before the courts due to their vulnerability.

There is a school of thought that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised and the debate will rumble as before.

There is validity in this argument.

However, society is appalled when children become involved in heinous crimes such as the horrific murder of two-year-old James Bulger at the hands of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged 10. They were the youngest convicted murderers in modern English history.

The use of statistics can be a dangerous practice.

They could infer that we are in danger of criminalising too many children and young people.

We need to look behind the reasons for the PSNI statistics.

It is alarming to note that criminal damage and common assault are recorded as among the highest statistics involving children.

How are we interpreting criminal damage? Is this a broken window or a broken cup thrown by a child in a children’s home in a temper tantrum? Would a parent call the PSNI if such occurrences happened in their own home?

An immediate glance at the statistics could make some people in society despair.

We need to look behind these figures and ask what exactly was going on at the time the children were questioned by the police.

In a modern society children and young people complain of boredom. This, in turn, can lead them to criminal activities.

Many children are quite oblivious to the fact that they are, indeed, involved in crime.

If mummy, daddy, a big brother or sister, or even an adored adult engages in petty crime, ‘monkey see — monkey do’ will come into play.

I don’t believe children are evil.

Unfortunately, some children may be born with personality disorders.

Others may have had such a terrible upbringing and suffered from a complete lack of love and care that they turn to appalling crime.

Children and young people can be turned from their ways.

This has been demonstrated many times by the diversionary schemes prevailing in Northern Ireland.

Children are the future of our province.

We need to look to the model citizens for the future — we will depend on them one day.

Rosemary Craig is a lecturer in law at the University of Ulster



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