A report published today by the Royal Society has concluded that the age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could be 'unreasonably low'.
The report's authors, including scientists, lawyers and ethicists, considered how developments in brain imaging could help to inform our understanding of criminal behaviour.
The report claims that an emerging understanding of how the brain develops has revealed that children mature much slower than was perhaps previously thought. More than that, the difference in the rate of maturation is widespread meaning that the current cut-off age of ten may not be justifiable in some cases.
"A number of psychologists have shown that adolescents are not wholly responsible, they are inclined to take risks and behave in irresponsible ways," says Nicholas Mackintosh, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, who chaired the Royal Society panel.
The area of the brain responsible for decision-making is in fact one of the slowest to mature. "Neuroscience adds to the evidence that a ten or 12 year-old does not have a fully adult brain in many important respects," he added.
Under the present rules in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a child aged ten or above can be tried and convicted of a crime on the basis that they are deemed criminally responsible in the eyes of the law. In Scotland the age of criminal responsibility is just eight, but a child under the age of 12 cannot be prosecuted for crimes they have committed.
The report expresses concern that the present law on criminal responsibility could be unreasonably low given the way the brain develops, and further that by containing an arbitrary cut-off age it fails to take into account the individual differences which neuroscience has now shown exist.
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