Is 10 too young to be a criminal?

Sunday 20 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Cinema 2 Generation Wars

In recent years, the scientific investigation into moral development has increasingly focused on children’s early years. A range of studies in psychology have claimed, ‘Children demonstrate surprisingly sophisticated and differentiated moral reasoning,’ or that ‘19- and 21-month-old infants have a general expectation of fairness, and they can apply it appropriately to different situations’. Beyond science, there is a growing cultural assumption that children have a capacity for moral agency ever earlier, reflected in everything from ‘pupil voice’ initiatives in schools to the ‘philosophy 4 kids’ movement,.

If we conclude that moral understanding can be found in infancy, what are the implications for holding hold young children accountable for their actions? With shocking headlines about racism and homophobia in primary schools, is there a danger of interpreting childish acts and attitudes according to adult moral standards? This discussion obviously begs the question about the age of criminal responsibility. Already in England and Wales, children aged 10 can face criminal prosecution and acquire criminal records, the lowest age in in the EU. It’s 12 in Scotland, 15 in Sweden, 18 in Brazil. But if we identify moral reasoning even earlier, should under-tens too be treated as responsible? And how should we then reconcile other such age-related restrictions whereby children cannot buy a pet until they are 12, do a paper round until they are 13, consent to sex until they are 16 or drive until they are 17?  Ironically, those opposed to the criminal law’s attribution of full culpability at such a young age, have also turned to scientific studies of children’s cognitive and emotional development to back their cause. The news that 2,000 primary-school-age children were arrested in England and Wales last year led to a panel of scientists, ethicists and lawyers suggesting some children’s brains may not be sufficiently developed by that time to be seen as moral agents.

So when do children really develop a sophisticated ‘adult’ moral understanding? What does our attitude towards children’s criminal responsibility say about our attitude overall towards children? Does a focus on scientific evidence ignore the complexity and changeability of human beings? Or is this new research on innately moral toddlers the new frontier in finding the roots of moral understanding?

Luke Gittos
criminal lawyer; director of City of London Appeals Clinic; legal editor at spiked; author, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans

Dr Nina Powell
doctoral research fellow, National University of Singapore

Professor Raymond Tallis
fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences; author, philosopher, critic and poet; recent books include NHS SOS and Aping Mankind; chair, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying

Dr James Treadwell
lecturer in criminology, University of Birmingham; author, Criminology: the essentials

Dr Helene Guldberg
director, spiked; author, Reclaiming Childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear and Just Another Ape?

Produced by
Dr Nina Powell doctoral research fellow, National University of Singapore
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