First we must ask ourselves who is a child? Is childhood something we constructed. In other words, is it an artificial construction to suit our needs? Some might say that childhood has been shortened and that children are growing up more quickly. Some might even add that children are being “adultified”, transformed into mini adults.
In the late 18th century, children were seen as the epitome of innocence and, once they became adults, they were thought to lose such innocence and make way for the evil inclinations adults were supposed to have.
Children were seen as vulnerable. Consequently, through the ages, there has been the need to protect the “vulnerable” children from adult contagion. But are children really vulnerable?
Anything that deviated from the innocent picture of childhood was labelled as evil and, eventually, a dichotomy was formed, with the good, angelic sweet child on one side and the evil, demonic, deviant child on the other.
But have child offenders really lost their childhood? Let’s say, for the sake of argument,that they have been really adultified. Would we then be justified to treat child offenders the same way as we would treat adult offenders?
The age of criminal responsibility in Malta is set at nine and is one of the lowest in Europe. We are only beaten by Cyprus, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, where this is set at seven, and by Gibraltar, Northern Ireland and Scotland where it is set at eight. In all other countries, the age of criminal responsibility is above nine years.
The establishment of a minimum age for criminal responsibility is a basic requirement in a juvenile criminal justice system. It marks the age when a child can be held responsible for his/her actions. So when this is set at nine, as in Malta’s case, it is something not to be taken lightly.
Back in 1993, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged 10, murdered toddler James Bulger, aged two. The whole of England was appalled and horrified at their crime and the tabloids demonised the children by calling them “little monsters” and, subsequently, their pictures were plastered all over the press.
Their trial was held in the Crown Court, that is, an adult court open to the public. It was marred with hurls of abuse and insults towards the children. In fact, they were labelled as “freaks of nature – the faces of normal boys but they had hearts of unparalleled evil”, as the headline of The Daily Mirror of November 25, 1993 ran. “Violence erupted outside a Merseyside court today after two boys appeared accused of the murder of James Bulger... Angry demonstrators screamed abuse and some people in the crowd surged forward trying to stop the vans. Bricks and other missiles were thrown,” the Liverpool Echo reported on February 22, 1993.
Their crime was a heinous one but, then again, the offenders were children and should not have been subjected to the same treatment an adult would have been subjected to. Their punishment was detention at “Her Majesty’s Pleasure”, which, in other words, means indefinite detention until deemed fit. Did that suffice to rehabilitate them? Jon Venables is back in prison on child pornography charges and will not be eligible for parole for at least another year.
I am obviously not advocating that children who commit offences should not be punished at all but theirs should not be the classic adult punishment. It should be adapted to the child in question. Punishment can take the form of community work, of a written apology to the victim and other restorative forms.
In Pennsylvania, Youth Advocate Programmes, Inc (YAP) relies on the community/neighbourhood to “punish” the offender by offering community-based alternatives. The key word here is “community”, something that might be lacking when it comes to child offenders.
Child offenders usually come into the limelight when they actually commit grave offences and a public outcry ensues condemning the child, their parents, their neighbourhood and so on. Such offenders usually come from dysfunctional families where discipline is harsh and erratic. Therefore, if one wants to reduce or even prevent child offending, one should not dismiss these children as being “little devils” but as being “angels in need of help” and, in fact, that is what they are because, although they might have adult-like knowledge in certain areas (and one should ask from where they obtained such knowledge), after all they are still children who need to be saved from a future life in crime.
Therefore, child crime should be nipped in the bud. One way of reaching this goal would be by offering social communitarian help, not only to the child but also to the family, because by helping solely the child one would only be tackling one part of the problem and leaving the other part to undo the good being done.
Dr Mangion is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family and child law.