All about the mind

Age of criminal culpability

At what age should a person be considered responsible for criminal behaviour?

Legally as it stands, in Australia a child under 10 cannot be charged for a crime as they are considered to not have the moral development to be held responsible. And now, there is an advocate for young people who thinks that the age should be increased to 16. I found myself completely and utterly shocked when I read that.

Currently, Australia apparently has one of the lowest ages for criminal responsibility and is therefore drawing flak from the UN. As someone who works with children, I think 10 can be considered high. Especially in this day and age. And if they are seriously considering of not charging individuals with crimes till they are 12 or 14 or 16, they are kidding themselves and living in a fantasy world.

The whole reason for not holding someone responsible under the age of 10 is that they do not understand the difference between right and wrong. Kids aged between 10 and 13 can be charged but there needs to be evidence that they knew they were doing the wrong thing. The law assumes that by 14, an individual understands right from wrong and can be tried in juvenile court. [Source]

However, if you think about the research into moral and pro-social development, between the ages of 2 and 3, some children are able to show guilt for inappropriate behaviour. More importantly, by the age of 6 or 7, they understand how to behave appropriately to gain rewards and avoid punishments. In other words, they know right behaviour from wrong behaviour. [Source] Also, one of the first stages of moral development as researched by Lawrence Kohlberg is the Preconventional Stage where children learn deference to authority and in order to avoid punishment, learn right from wrong. This can be observed in children upto the age of 9. [Source]

So how does the law even begin to make sense when you consider most normally developing kids can tell right from wrong by the age of 9 at the most?? And even more bizarre is the call to increase the age of criminal responsibility.

The second stage of moral development is the Conventional reasoning stage which is seen in adolescents and adults and this involves understanding conformity to rules and how approval or disapproval from others can influence perceptions of right and wrong. In other words, it’s not about lack of understanding of right or wrong but rather how others would view us. Therefore, if you are a 12 year old who thinks you will get approval from your peers for stealing, you are more likely to do it. Even though you know the rules say stealing is a crime. But why shouldn’t a young person be charged for this? They know the rules. They know right from wrong. Yet, they succumb to approval from peers. I’m not saying someone should be gaoled for this but there is no reason for them to not be tried or charged.

Crimes by teenagers are on the rise. Teens across Australia as young as 12 and 13 are being charged for mugging, car-jackings, stabbings, driving away from police in a stolen vehicle and running into people among others. Crimes by juveniles is on the increase. And yet, not much can be done about it. And how can we forget the James Bulger case? Where the toddler was murdered by two 10 year old boys in 1993. Or the 11 year old boy who shot his pregnant stepmother in the US in 2009?

Don’t tell me these kids don’t know right from wrong. Because they do. And these are just some of the examples. There are so many more we read about every day.

There will be people who will talk about the difficult circumstances in which these kids are living in which is fair enough. But it still does not mean they need to be let go. They still need a consequence. If not juvenile detention, something. If we increase the age of criminal responsibility to 16, we are in for a whole lot of trouble. As it is, parents and teachers don’t have many rights over children. If we take away the rights of the police, what else is left? I am all for positive parenting and using rewards to improve acceptable behaviours. But they need to be balanced with consequences. Consequences that fit the action.

If that means detention for some or gaol for others, so be it.

Let’s not take away the rights of the legal system for the rights of a child.

Things have gone too far already.

What do you think my readers? Do you think the age of responsibility should be increased? Or should it be decreased?

Until next time,


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  • PeeVee™
    1 May 2012 at 5:58 am

    I think children can be charged if there is enough evidence that they did harm with the intention of doing so without any provocation of any kind. While there is the need to curb rising violence among children, there is also the need to protect the children from parents, guardians and associated people who might be feeding/eliciting that kind of behavior in which case the child thinks that it’s okay to do such things.

    Also, punishment should not be too harsh for the child should be a given one more chance at life and making it right.

    Ultimately, though, I can sit here and yap all I like but each case is individual, one with it’s own set of complications and implications.

    • Psych Babbler™
      2 May 2012 at 1:12 am

      I agree PeeVee…any court ruling whether for adults or kids needs to look at intent. And I’m all for judging each case individually…still look at intent and also the family background. I guess my gripe is the call to increase the age limit because all it means is that the younger kids will know they can get away with crime. And trust me, that happens!

    • PeeVee™
      2 May 2012 at 9:18 am

      That, is true. I read an article a week back which talked about how a 12 year old ‘raped’ his 3 year old step sister. I am thinking back to when I was 12 and the things I used to think about then NONE of which were anything even remotely close to rape. We’re doing something wrong somewhere….

    • Psych Babbler™
      16 May 2012 at 10:23 pm

      Sexual abuse at that young age is sometimes related to overly sexualised influences or abuse itself. We have specialist teams here to work with children under 10 who abuse other children because of possibly lack of understanding of the fact that it’s wrong (due to being exposed to sexual behaviour themselves). And yes, I don’t know where or when society screwed up, but we are failing forthcoming generations…

  • Lilly
    1 May 2012 at 6:39 am

    You of all people know what young kids are like given you are seeing them all the time. I don’t know I thought 14 was ok but then I realise kids way younger are committing horrific crimes these days. The problem is they keep wreaking havoc on society until such a time as they can be locked up. I am aware that these kids are more than likely victims of their own upbringing but I imagine they are better if they can get into treatment as soon as they can. The older they get the more they will be entrenched in their criminal ways. Its such a hard thing to determine. But something is not working which needs to be fixed. Good post.

    • Psych Babbler™
      2 May 2012 at 1:50 am

      Lilly, I have clients aged 11 and 12 who get into punch ups and when I try to talk to them about consequences, they proudly tell me the cops can only warn them and do nothing else. What hope have we got? I still can scare some of them by saying they can be charged but if the age changes to 14, we are doomed. Because by that time, some of these kids are getting into far worse. I agree that sometimes it is their upbringing but rather than just difficult houses, some of the kids are so entitled, even their parents have no control over them. And yes, there is something wrong with the whole system. We have gone too far towards the rights of the kids that we haven’t given adults any means to manage them. I am not advocating abuse of any form but adults are helpless and kids know that these days. Ask any teacher and they will tell you how difficult things are.

  • Journomuse
    1 May 2012 at 7:05 am

    Interesting post Psych Babbler…In an age when children as young as ten are handling their on Facebook and other Social Networking Accounts posing as adults and indulging in several other forms of ‘mature’/adult behaviour, I think it is high time that we make an effort to sensitise them to what turning adult is all about – owning up to their mistakes and bearing the brunt of what responsibility entails. Unfortunately kids these days are moving faster towards all the perks of adulthood even while getting the benefits of remaining within their sheltered childhood. However, I also must add the rider that each case might need to be handled on its merit sensitively. Don’t you think? Especially in the case of juvenile law, situation, circumstances and other extraneous factors also need to be taken into account before fixing culpability? What say?

    • Psych Babbler™
      16 May 2012 at 10:49 pm

      I agree Journomuse…children are growing up too fast but need to learn more about consequences and being responsible for their actions. And I probably should have mentioned it in the post that I am all for each case being judged on its own merit. After all, if a child around 11 or 12 has been sexually abused and therefore abuses another child thinking it’s normal, we can’t treat it in the same manner as say a teen aged 14 knowing right from wrong. I guess all I was saying is that the current laws should stay the way they are because they continue to take into account individual cases and don’t just willy-nilly throw a teen into juvenile detention. It just means that they can be charged if needed. But if the law were to change and the age increased, it means that those with intent and without any such extenuating circumstances could also get away with crimes.

  • Makk
    1 May 2012 at 2:31 pm

    each case might need to be handled on its merit sensitively.

    This is the holy grail for these cases because of the involved individuals, their case, type of crime.

    At the same time, I definitely second your opinion here to not to snatch Police’s rights.

    • Psych Babbler™
      16 May 2012 at 10:50 pm

      I am all for each case being handled on its own merit Makk…after all, not every child’s circumstances are the same. I should have mentioned that in my post!

  • Jessie G
    2 May 2012 at 4:38 am

    I feel like so much of society is evolving yet the really important things are being left behind. We thrust so many ‘adult’ concepts and choices into the faces of these younger kids, they watch adult films, they have expensive gadgets, they are exposed to violence, crime, sexuality and conflicts. Is it any surprise that underage violence is on the up and up? If they think they are old enough to ‘do their own thing’ and make adult choices at the age of 11,12,15, whenever, then yes, they need to be held accountable for the adult decision they have made. In an adult manner.

    Kids these days don’t have the same level or respect. They have this attitude that nothing can touch them. They can drive at high speeds, play with guns, be violent towards their peers and they are just “kids”. Enough already. Why can’t the system be put back to the old school morals? You respect the law and your elders, and if you don’t, you pay the price. There has to be accountability for what they do.

    • Psych Babbler™
      16 May 2012 at 11:17 pm

      Weclome here Jessie! I agree with you that while we are evolving in some ways, there are other things such as respect which we seem to be forgetting. And at some stage, children need to learn that there are consequences for actions. If the age of criminal culpability increases, they are going to continue to think they can get away with anything resulting in adults with antisocial behaviour by which time any kind of reformation becomes too late. After all, teachers aren’t allowed to give any kind of consequences and parents are slowly running out of options…all that is left to keep some kids in line is the law and if that gets taken away, god help us!

  • R's Mom
    2 May 2012 at 5:24 am

    The problem in India, at least is, we think children need to be cuddled, and protected and what not! I am not sure what is the right age to start holding people for criminal behaviour, but from experience I can tell that my nearly four year old knows when she has made a mistake and knows that unless she says sorry her mommy is not going to listen to any of her explanations…may be she is still a kid, but still…if we can give them facebook access at 7 (yes I know of a seven year old who has free FB access), cant we teach them the difference between right and wrong? of course, depending on the evidence, the punishment should vary, but I do think, that kids are getting older at a younger age these days

    • Psych Babbler™
      16 May 2012 at 11:40 pm

      Apparently in India the age from which you can hold a child criminally responsible is 7. I think 10 is a good age which exists in Aus currently. That’s the thing RM…kids as young as 7 (and even younger) access FB, phones, internet etc so why can’t we have consequences for them in the form of the law? They need to learn that while you can have access to such adult stuff, you also can be held responsible. Of course, each individual case should still be taken at its own merit and any extenuating factors should be accounted for but to raise the age to 14 or 16 is just ridiculous!

  • Julia
    2 May 2012 at 11:37 am

    I am really surprised i must say. I find it incomprehensible that so many of the people posting think that kids should be held criminally responsible and punished or criminally charged.

    Yes i’m going to mention that kids of 10 that are committing terrible crimes have probably never had a break in life and have probably been abused and have never had any stable adult guidance let alone any emotionally functional relationships. You want to talk about moral development at the age of 2-3? what is your parents beat each other up and scream at you and don’t show you any affection or provide any structure? The fact that they are exbhibiting such deviant behaviour is a FLAG that they need help. And then you want to give them a criminal record and place them in a prison or juvenile detention centre? how exactly is that going to help? THey will be stigmatised with a criminal record – so they probably won’t be able to get a job or a place to rent or anything. And you put them into an institute full of other people who committ crimes – so they can be subjected to a hyper-aggressive climate and either broken or learn how to hone their criminal tendencies. Excellent plan. I’m sure that will REALLY solve their problems.

    And how about considering that adolescents do not have the same decision=making abilities as adults do. They are much more susceptible to peer pressure and do not weigh-up risks very well. There is plenty of recent research to explain this.

    Well I suppose everyone has their own views, i just wish people would be more understanding of kids that are basically victims of their upbringing.

    • Psych Babbler™
      16 May 2012 at 11:54 pm

      Julia, first off, I agree with your points about the different decision-making abilities in adolescents due to the frontal lobe not being completely developed as well as your point about kids from difficult circumstances. Based on some of the comments by yourself and others, I probably wasn’t very clear in my post. I am not saying that just because a teen commits a crime, they should go into detention. But I am saying that the law should stay as it is wherein a child CAN be held criminally responsible once they are over the age of 10. Because even with this law in place, courts still take into account other extenuating factors. They are not throwing every kid into juve but also recommend therapy and the like depending on circumstances. But by changing the age limit to 14 or 16 only gives leeway to continue to commit crimes. Whether it be because of peer pressure or poor decision-making abilities, kids and teens still need to know there are consequences for their actions. Most know right from wrong. Courts evaluate this even today. The way society stands currently is that teachers have no rights over kids, schools can’t give out consequences (detention and suspension do not work!) and parents too are losing more rights. If we take away the law, what have we got left in terms of teaching children and teens that there are consequences to actions? By the time they are 16 or 18, it will be too late to instill any change and antisocial behaviour will be part and parcel of their lives. So I am not advocating every kid be gaoled but I am advocating for the law to stay the same in that a child can be held responsible from 11 onwards. The key word being can and not should.

    • Anonymous
      26 June 2012 at 7:15 am

      If detention and suspension doesn’t work why would imprisonment? Just a thought. I have to say, I was pretty furious when I read this article until I saw your clarifying comments down here. I agree with your actual position, but the main article made it seem you believed children are demons that need shackling.

  • Bikramjit
    2 May 2012 at 6:09 pm

    hey you shud be out there site seeing with family what are you doing spending time on net 🙂 he he he
    not that i mind it ..

    excellent article i guess each nation has theier own , I on the other find that If you do a crime then you are a criminal , and it applies ot kids too.. furthur more the kids who are notorious maybe thier parents need to be hauled up to, for i beleive its their responsibility they brought them here in the iworld.. IF they cant then they shud not have produced them (sorry to use that word)…


    • Psych Babbler™
      16 May 2012 at 11:57 pm

      At the time of the post Bikram, only my sis was here. 🙂 I agree with your point about the parents being held responsible too. Although in some cases, there are parents at their wits’ end because they can’t really enforce too many consequences on their children either! And in terms of people not having kids if they cannot be responsible for them…don’t get me started on that controversial topic. After all I have seen (as you probably have as well), I think there should be some kind of license to have kids! But of course, that’s a whole murky thing in itself…