Should children be held liable for their actions? At what age is it acceptable to charge children—how young is too young? This issue is often debated in law jurisdictions around the world.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act is an important part of the Criminal Code in Canada. The age of criminal responsibility in Canada is 12 years old—if the individual is younger than 12, they cannot be convicted of an offence. Those between the ages of 12 and 17 will be tried under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which grants special protections to those who are not adults.
Given the life-changing ramifications of a criminal record, the question of whether children should be held liable for their actions is a source of contention.
Seeing Both Sides of the Issue
Some argue that children shouldn’t be held responsible because they lack the capacity to understand the wrongness of their actions. How can a child understand their punishment when they do not fully comprehend their wrongdoing in the first place? Many people believe that young people should not be tried in an adult court, regardless of their crime.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility is a controversial subject. For example, in England and Wales, children as young as 10 can be held criminally responsible for their actions. For many citizens, this is seen as far too young, and they claim it should be raised to 12 years. Is it right for someone’s life to be defined by a crime they committed in their youth?
But those on the other side of this argument feel that raising the age of criminal responsibility gives young people a “free pass” to break the law. They fear that it will encourage youth to commit more crimes under the guise that they’ll be able to get away with them. Some fear that if children are not punished, they will go on to commit more heinous crimes as they get older.
In Canada, it’s uncommon for children to receive a jail sentence unless they have committed a violent crime or are a repeat offender.
When children are tried in the criminal justice system, it’s important to consider that their brains are not fully developed. This is why it can be problematic to compare the consciousness of a child to that of an adult.
The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that’s involved with functions like creating plans, making decisions, and behaviour in social situations. Since this area is underdeveloped in children, it may play a role in why youths commit crimes; they may lack the cognitive capacity to understand the consequences of their actions, along with why they are wrong in the first place.
Now that research has revealed the discrepancies between an adult brain and that of a young person, more countries are revising their laws regarding the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
Regardless of how you feel about this often debated issue, one thing remains the same: anyone who is facing criminal charges, whether they’re 12-years-old or 112, has the right to legal representation. Being charged for a crime at a young age has implications for the rest of one’s life.