Belfast Telegraph

Yes, this is madness but let's get real, society is not about to be overrun by a bunch of reckless, feral youngsters

By Fionola Meredith

There's something about the idea of feral kids running amok that strikes an almost superstitious horror into people's hearts. But I don't believe we're facing a junior crime epidemic.

I really think we can sleep safe in our beds at night without fear of a pre-pubescent desperado breaking in and holding us to ransom. Yes, it's disturbing that almost 250 incidents of suspected crime by children aged under 10 have been investigated by police over the last three years.

When you consider that we're talking about primary-age children, the charge sheet is extraordinary: 24 sexual offences, 82 assaults, four arson attacks, two cases of possessing an offensive weapon and one of drug possession. One five-year-old child, barely of school age, was questioned about causing criminal damage. But bear in mind that not one of these children was convicted of any crime. They could not be prosecuted because the age of criminal responsibility - where people are deemed to be aware of what they are doing, and the consequences of it - does not apply until children are aged over 10.

And who's to say that these kids, some of whom are suspected of monstrous crimes, would be charged and convicted, even without that caveat?

If we believe in the principle of innocence until proven guilty, then surely this must apply tenfold when we are dealing with children.

Policing Board member Jonathan Craig says that "we have to accept that no matter the age of an individual, they have the potential to commit the most horrendous crimes".

I don't think that's a helpful comment, and in many ways it's harmful.

To begin from a position of assumed potential guilt is deeply unfair, as well as being needlessly melodramatic.

What does Mr Craig envisage, an assassin in nappies?

Of course we know that children can get involved with all kinds of nasty business. But let's not forget that they are still children.

The law about criminal responsibility is there for a good reason: youngsters below a certain age are not yet capable of understanding the implications of their actions, and it's wrong to treat them in the same way we would an adult.

Children who are barely old enough to tie their shoe-laces unaided cannot be held to full inquisitorial account.

Treating them as criminals will not help them mend their ways, and may even reinforce delinquent behaviour so that they end up as fully-fledged adult offenders. Is that really the result we want?

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