Serious concerns raised as children criminalised at 10

Youth Crime / Film 1

Almost 100 children aged between 10 and 12-years-old were convicted of crimes in Northern Ireland over a five year period, The Detail can reveal today.

During the same period, over 550 young people aged between 13 and 17 were sentenced to custody.

The figures have been released under Freedom of Information legislation as a review team set up by the Department of Justice continues to examine Northern Ireland’s youth justice system and our low age of criminal responsibility.

A leading youth crime expert and an organisation working with young people today put forward the argument that 10-years-old is far too young for children to be convicted of crimes and they call for a radical change to the way young offenders are dealt with here.

Just last week a 10-year-old boy was questioned by the PSNI about gorse fires in County Tyrone.

Two other 10-year-old boys hit the headlines almost 20 years ago and shocked people across the world when they were convicted of the vicious murder of toddler James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993.

The age of criminal responsibility in most other European countries is between 14 and 16-years-old.

The Youth Justice Agency (YJA) of Northern Ireland figures show that 93 young people aged between 10 and 12 were given non-custodial sentences in Northern Ireland between January 1, 2005 and June 30, 2009.

• Two 10-year-old children were convicted of ‘threats to kill’ and common assault of an adult.

• Eighteen 11-year-olds received convictions which included assault of an adult, criminal damage, riotous behaviour on licensed premises, theft and assault on police.

• Seventy-three 12-year-olds’ had convictions which included assault, burglary and theft, criminal damage, disorderly behaviour on licensed premises, driving under age or when disqualified, obstructing police, arson and indecent assault of a female.

Figures released to The Detail by the PSNI, again under Freedom of Information, show that 58 Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) were served to under 18s between 2005 and 2010 – including one 12-year-old – in Northern Ireland.

And over 7,800 cautions were handed out by the PSNI to children and young people aged under 18 over the same five year period, some were as young as 10-years-old.

The offences which led to police cautions for 10-year-olds include arson, theft, driving while disqualified by age and making indecent photographs; for 11-year-olds the cautions included possession of a Class C drug and indecent assault on a female child; in the 12-year-old age category the offences included indecent assault on a female.

You can access files below this article for a full breakdown of the crimes committed by young people and also detailed information on the ASBOs and cautions given by the police.

The YJA statistics include that 75 children aged between 10 and 13, 193 young people aged 14 and 467 aged 15 were held in the Juvenile Justice Centre under Police and Criminal Evidence Order (PACE) or on remand during the years 2006-2010. The alleged offences waiting to be dealt with by the courts included violence against the person, sexual offences, robbery, drug offences and motoring offences.

Nine 15-year-old boys, sixty-two 16-year-old boys and six hundred and fourteen 17-year-old boys, one 16-year-old girl and twenty-six 17-year-old girls were held on remand in Hydebank Wood young offenders’ centre in south Belfast over five years between 2005 and 2009.

Two 17-year-olds were held on remand in Maghaberry during the same period.

Last week, two young people on remand at Hydebank were found dead in their cells. The Prison Service said that a ligature had been removed from both 19-year-old Samuel Carson and 23-year-old Frances McKeown’s cells.

It costs around £100,000 a year to keep a young person in custody.

The FOI response from the Youth Justice Agency shows that, for young people discharged from all types of custody, the overall re-offending rate is currently 70% (based on 2006 statistics).

The Hillsborough Castle Agreement in February 2010 included a commitment to a review of how children and young people are processed at all stages of the criminal justice system, including detention, to ensure compliance with international obligations and best practice.

The review was formally announced by Justice Minister David Ford on November 1st last year. The deadline to produce a report for public consultation has been extended to the end of next month which means that a decision on the way forward is set to be taken by the incoming Justice Minister in the new Assembly term.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said it could not comment while the review was ongoing.

Youth Crime

Youth Crime

The information provided by the Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland includes a detailed breakdown of all of the offences committed by children and young people between 2005 and the middle of 2009.

In 2005, 158 young people aged between 13 and 17 at date of sentence received a non-suspended custody sentence – two were aged 13, 14 were 14-years-old, 25 were 15-years-old, 39 were 16-years-old and 78 were 17-years-old.

This included a 17-year-old convicted of murder; another 17-year-old convicted of indecent assault of a female; two 14-year-olds and a 15-year-old with drugs offences; a 14-year-old convicted of throwing a petrol bomb; three 15-year-olds and two 16-year-olds with convictions for assault on police; two 14-year-olds and two 15-year-olds with offences of assault occasioning actual bodily harm; three 14-year-olds convicted of burglary and theft.

In 2006, 99 young people were sentenced to custody. One was 13-years-old, five were 14, 14 were 15-years-old, 26 were 16-years-old and 53 were 17-years-old.

The offences include a 13-year-old convicted of assaulting an adult; a 16-year-old and 17-year-old with convictions for rape; a 15-year-old and 16-year-old with convictions for indecent assault on a female; two 17-year-olds with convictions for GBH; arson convictions for young people aged 14, 16 and 17.

In 2007, 115 under 18s were sentenced to custody. Seven were aged 14, 20 aged 15, 40 aged 16 and 48 aged 17.

The offences include one 14-year-old and five 15-year-olds convicted of arson; one 15-year-old, a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old each convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm; one 15-year-old, three 16-year-olds and two 17-year-olds with offences of assaults on police; a 17-year-old sentenced to custody for gross indecency with a child; one 14-year-old and two 16-year-olds convicted of riotous behaviour on licensed premises; two young people aged 16 and 17 convicted of threats to kill.

In 2008, 129 young people were sentenced to custody. One was 13-years-old (convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm), seven were 14-years-old, 15 were 15-years-old, 38 were 16-years-old and 68 were 17-years-old.

One 17-year-old was sentenced for aggravated burglary with intent to rape; a 14 and 16-year-old were convicted of attempted rape; two 14-year-olds, one 15-year-old, two 16-year-olds and four 17-year-olds were all convicted of common assault on an adult; a 15-year-old was convicted of possessing a Class A controlled drug with intent to supply.

From January to June 2009, 50 young people were sentenced. Two were 14-years-old, nine were 15-years-old, 13 were 16-years-old and 26 were 17-years-old.

A 15 and 16-year-old were convicted of assaulting police, one 14-year-old was convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, another 14-year-old was sentenced for gross indecency with a child, a 16-year-old was convicted of rape and a 15-year-old was sentenced for wounding with intent.

Koulla Yiasouma

Koulla Yiasouma

Koulla Yiasouma is director of the organisation Include Youth which works with young people in need or at risk, including teenagers from a care background and young people who have committed or are at risk of committing crime.

She said: “I think it’s worrying when you think of a 10 or 11-year-old being arrested and going to court and getting a conviction.

“What we know about these children is that only one or two of them would have done something so awful or so serious that they needed to be restricted in some way. The rest, I guarantee you, will have come from circumstances where the system has failed them.

“We should be looking at what their education was, what their family support was and if they live in some sort of poverty or social disadvantage rather than arresting them and putting them into handcuffs.”

Ms Yiasouma said that a criminal record can lead to a child developing a criminal identity which is hard to shake off.

“What we need to do is take these sorts of unhelpful labels and identities off these children and let them know that they are children with a lot of potential and a lot of hope and something to contribute to our society and that our society has something to give back to them.

“Arresting and handcuffing children is just not the way to go.

“We have far too many of our kids locked up in Northern Ireland and seven out of every 10 children who are released commit further offending. It doesn’t work.

“If all of government got together and addressed this issue, then I would guarantee it would make our communities safer. Locking up children and arresting children generally does not.”

Ms Yiasouma argues that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to “anything above 14”.

“They are not allowed to be on a jury until they are 18, they are not allowed to vote for the government that criminalises them until they’re 18, but they’re allowed to be criminalised from the age of 10. It doesn’t make sense, it really, really doesn’t make sense,” she said.

She added that too many children are being held on remand – sometimes for as long as two years.

“We lock up children, very often, because they haven’t got anywhere to live. That’s not right. There is no piece of legislation that says you should lock up a homeless child.

“They do commit crime but it’s petty crime that if they were living at home with their families, with a roof over their head, they wouldn’t be locked up for. They’d be on bail at home waiting for a sentence.

“We’re locking them up sometimes for one or two years. How can that be right for a child to wait for two years for a consequence of an action?

“We have to speed up what happens between the arrest and the consequence so they can link the two and learn from it.”

As many as two thirds of children in custody come from a background of living in care.

Ms Yiasouma said: “Looked after children are disproportionately represented in our custodial population. It can’t be right that often two in every three children that we have locked up are looked after.

“These are our most vulnerable, traumatised, abused children and we are locking them up in the criminal establishments. This is because of lack of resources and a lack of therapeutic interventions. We need to start freeing these children.”

Anne Dawson

Anne Dawson

Anne Dawson, from Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, is also concerned about children living in care.

She said: “There is a perception where you go into care and your next step is straight into the criminal justice system and there’s something very wrong if that is the case.

“Barnardo’s feels that if you’re a looked after child that really you should have the best possible parenting that’s available. It should be second to none. That isn’t really the case and this needs to be looked at.

“You could be criminalised if you’re a looked after child, if you break a window in a temper tantrum in a children’s home and that’s reported to the police. Whereas if you’re living at home you might break a window but the police might not necessarily be called.”

Barnardo’s would like to see the age of criminal responsibility raised to 12 – except for very serious crimes like rape or murder – and argues that youth conferencing has been a very successful alternative to custody in Northern Ireland.

“Youth conferencing in Northern Ireland is seen as a world leader, “ Ms Dawson said. “It has been recommended by an independent committee that it is rolled out to England and Wales where they are currently more likely to put young people into the criminal justice system.

“We are not saying that bad behaviour should go unpunished. We are just saying that there are other ways of doing it, like youth conferencing, instead of criminalising children at a very young age which makes it more likely that they will re-offend.

“Re-offending means more victims in the future and more cost to the taxpayer. What we are saying is prevention is better than punishment.

“The United Nations have said that it should be internationally condemned if the age of criminal responsibility is under 12 so this is something that Northern Ireland really needs to look at.

“Youth conferencing doesn’t let children off with their crime. They are held accountable for their bad behaviour. They have to meet the victim of their crime, admit responsibility and are given the opportunity to make amends. Barnardo’s has found that this does break the cycle.”