Hot Issues in Mental Health

Age of Responsibility

From Allan Mawdsley


The Crime Statistics Agency reported a one third increase in offences by children aged between 10 and 13 last year. News reporting of home invasions, armed robberies and high-speed chases of stolen cars involving young people are an almost daily occurrence. It is clear that a strong response is needed.

Predictably, the Police Association spokesperson called for stronger criminal justice action, including a halt to the proposal for raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. However, the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Liana Buchanan, has a different view. She supports the Government’s policy of raising the age of criminal responsibility. The public can reasonably ask which approach is likely to have the best outcome.

We all know that brain maturation is not complete until the mid-20s. This is particularly true for the frontal lobes where executive functioning is primarily located. This affects planning, judgment of consequences of actions and impulse control, the very issues involved in governing behaviour.

We know that adolescence is a time of individuation and moving on from adult authority to personal responsibility. We also know that it is a time when peer group belonging is important. We rely on internalisation of pro-social rules from family and community outweighing the urge for illegal adventures. It does not always work. Why not?

The answer needs to be found individually for each young person, and appropriately addressed, as part of their pro-social development. Mindless detention in the “school for criminals” will not address this. In fact, it is likely to make it worse when attachments to pro-social influences are disrupted.

A strong response is needed because these young people are at risk of a lifelong downward trajectory. Raising the age of criminal responsibility is appropriate, provided that constructive programs are put in place for support, therapy and educative rehabilitation for the young people and their families. We need to avoid punitive management that may make their behaviour worse. We know what has to be done, but we need reassurance that it will be properly implemented. 

We would be grateful for the views of others. Comments can be sent to 

Allan Mawdsley

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