There is little international consensus about when young people should be punished under the law
AT WHAT AGE does an illegal act by a child become a crime? A grisly murder in China has brought this question to the fore. Last month a 13-year-old boy in Dalian, a city in the north-east, confessed to sexually assaulting a ten-year-old girl, stabbing her to death and dumping her body on the side of the road. The boy will not spend any time behind bars, however, because under Chinese law children are not held criminally responsible for their actions until they turn 14. He will instead spend three years in a “rehabilitation centre”, the harshest punishment available.
Such a rule is not unusual. The United Nations recommends that countries set their minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) no lower than 12, and encourages them to make the limit older. Many do. More than 40 countries set the cut-off at 14. A handful—including Argentina and Mozambique—draw the line at 16. Elsewhere, the minimum age is much younger. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, among others, set the MACR at seven.
In some countries the age at which children can be charged with crimes varies from place to place. In America, there are 33 states with no minimum at all. In Wisconsin, ten-year-olds may be charged. In other countries, the definition can be fuzzy. In Syria, for example, children are held criminally responsible only if they have reached puberty. Several African countries have similar criteria. In Iran, girls are responsible after “nine lunar years” but boys have until they are 15.
Often there are calls to lower the MACR after an under-age child commits a particularly egregious offence. The recent murder in China has provoked a debate about whether exempting children from prosecution prevents justice from being done. One problem is that, in most legal systems, offenders are not criminally liable if they do not understand they have done something wrong. Determining when a child is capable of having criminal intent can be difficult.
Moreover most countries, even those with the death penalty, abide by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids capital punishment or life imprisonment for under-18s. However, some countries where the death penalty for under-18s is supposedly banned, including Egypt and Iran, have been accused of carrying out executions nonetheless.
Opponents of punishing children argue that youngsters are often victims of circumstance. Many come from poor families or are manipulated or exploited by adults. Criminalising them may only compound these harms, limiting job prospects and encouraging recidivism. Critics also point out that lowering the age of responsibility may not necessarily reduce crime. After Denmark cut it from 15 to 14 in 2010, researchers found that 14-year-olds were no less likely to commit crimes.