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Four-year-old quizzed by police for threatening to kill

Shocking new figures reveal extent of crime by children in Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

Children as young as four have been quizzed about crimes including theft, sex offences and making threats to kill, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Over 200 children aged under 10 were questioned by the PSNI about suspected criminal activity in the last two years.

However, none of the children were charged with an offence because they were below the age of criminal responsibility.

Police figures for the 2007/08 and 2008/09 years reveal that officers questioned 214 under-10s about 15 different types of crime.

These ranged from arson and public order offences to hoax calls and criminal damage.

Two children — aged seven and nine — were questioned about motoring offences, even though the minimum age to drive a car is 17.

Another six children — including two aged just five — were suspected of alcohol-related offences.

The youngest children to be questioned by police were just four years of age — barely old enough to start primary school.

Four were quizzed about criminal damage, two others concerning sex offences, one about theft and the other about making threats to kill.

The shocking figures will prompt fresh debate about lowering the age of criminal responsibility.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland that age is 10. In Scotland it is eight, although Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill plans to raise it to 12.

Laurence Lee was solicitor for Jon Venables, one of two 10-year-olds who murdered two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. He believes the age of responsibility should remain at 10.

“If an eight-year-old was to carry out a Bulger-type murder, I think the criminal proceedings would be farcical for a child of that age,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

“I think 10 is about the right age, although offences are committed by kids younger than that, and it’s something which needs to be kept under constant review.

“For example, in a scenario where you had a spate of murders carried out by nine-year-olds, then the age of criminal responsibility would have to be looked at again.”

He added: “There was a time when the assumption that a child could not commit an offence was appropriate, but that has now become non-existent. Children are growing up younger now and most 10-year-olds know the difference between right and wrong, indeed a lot of kids younger than that have street cred.”

Alban Maginness, a former barrister and the SDLP’s spokesman on justice, said the figures were “alarming and very disturbing”.

“It is disturbing that children are involved in unusual, difficult or troublesome behaviour,” he said. “That reflects not on them, but on their parents or those who are responsible for them.”

He also opposes reducing the age of criminal responsibility.

“I don’t accept that a child under 10 has the mental capacity to commit a criminal offence,” he said.

“They may be doing something which is wrong, but it cannot be considered a criminal offence or criminal behaviour.

“You have to be mature enough to see that what you are doing is criminal.”

Breakdown of crimes by age

Aged 4:

Criminal damage: 4

Sexual offence: 2

Theft: 1

Threat to kill: 1

Aged 5:

Alcohol related: 2

Common Assault: 1

Criminal damage: 11

Hoax calls: 3

Aged 6:

Alcohol related: 2

Common assault: 3

Sexual offence: 1

Theft: 3

Aged 7:

Common assault: 8

Motoring offence: 1

Sexual offence: 2

Theft: 9

Aged 8:

Arson: 3

GBH: 4

Sexual offence: 3

Theft: 14

Aged 9:

Alcohol related: 2

Burglary: 2

Common assault: 28

Criminal damage: 18

Theft: 21

Belfast Telegraph


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