How to get away with murder – should we punish children for their crimes?


C/W: this article contains mentions of violence and murder

From ‘Children who kill’ to ‘Britain’s evil teens’, these striking headlines demonstrate society’s wider fascination with crime, especially the most monstruous felony – murder. Indeed the ‘true crime’ genre has recently exploded, with the new Dahmer series and Bundy film proving incredibly popular with audiences. However, the idea of children committing such heinous crimes stupefy and horrify society. Recent cases triggered discussions about child criminality with a significant, wider debate continuing regarding the age of criminal responsibility and whether we can justifiably punish children for their crimes. 

Child murderers are incredibly rare; therefore, these cases fascinate and alarm people in equal measure. Nevertheless, despite our detestation towards murderers, our morbid curiosity inhibits us from ignoring stories reported in the media. However, the news stories of child murderers are shocking for another reason: our inability to comprehend how a child can murder someone. It is simply incomprehensible that a child can stab someone fifty-eight times, as the thirteen-year-old American Craig Price did, becoming a serial killer before the age of sixteen. 

Across Europe measures of foster care, psychiatric institutions and monitoring by authorities are implemented, but are these sufficient?

The possibility these killers who commit such heinous crimes could not face jail time in certain countries because of the age of criminal responsibility is incredibly divisive. For example, the age of criminal responsibility in Germany is fourteen, with youths (from fourteen to eighteen) only reprimanded if deemed sufficiently mentally mature. Across Europe measures of foster care, psychiatric institutions and monitoring by authorities are implemented, but are these sufficient? Comparatively, America is less lenient with Price receiving twenty-five years in prison and further cases of children being prosecuted as adults for murder and similar offences. 

Regarding the age of culpability, more leniency is shown in other European countries, such as Luxembourg, whose age of criminal responsibility is eighteen. The UK is considered an outlier with the age set at ten years old (lower than any EU state) and youths able to be tried and sent to juvenile prisons. This is a topic of significant debate, with recent consensus arguing the case of raising the age of responsibility to twelve, and possibly fourteen, equal to our counterparts. These discussions may seem trivial; however, they encompass wider debates about children’s capacity to understand their actions and the external factors that shape them. Arguably, the murder of James Bulger inhibited discussions regarding raising the age in England and Wales, thirty years later. 

The actions of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the two ten-year-olds who killed James Bulger, changed the public and legal perceptions of criminality. In 1993 they became the youngest convicted murderers in England before their sentences revision. The deliberate nature of their actions, causing Bulger forty-two separate injuries, and their attempts to hide their crime demonstrated an understanding of their actions. The reversal of their sentences due to successive interventions resulted in the two being released aged eighteen and exhibited a recognition their initial sentence was too severe for children – even children who committed murder. 

Is there a need for deterrence when so few children commit crimes of this nature?

The juvenile system exists due to the recognition that child offenders cannot be treated or punished as adults. This premise is demonstrated more widely with age restrictions in voting, sexual consent and alcohol consumption judged by a lack of emotional responsibility and the inability to make informed decisions or influence their own lives. Despite the notion ‘you do the crime, you do the time’, treating and sentencing children as adults, especially when they do not have the ‘mens rea’ to understand criminality is both wrong and ineffective. Tougher sentencing simply does not work or benefit society, for example, the UK has a reoffending rate of over 70% for children sent to youth custody demonstrating how a tougher strategy turns children who commit crimes into adults who do too. In the interest of a rehabilitative justice system, lenient sentences shield children from the consequences of entering prison and allow for reintegration, whilst recognising the uncontrolled external factors which influence children’s behaviour. Moreover, is there a need for deterrence when so few children commit crimes of this nature? However, it is inarguable how families can feel they have received justice when their loved ones suspected killers are able to rehabilitate whilst their kin’s life was so brutally ended.

If what you desire from justice is retribution, the truest retributive sentence to inflict would be the death penalty (or life in prison) and when the main tragedy, in these cases, is a life cut short, what sense does it make to end more?

Image credits: Ekaterina Bolovtsova via Pexels

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