An eight-year-old cannot commit rape
The Daily Mail report on the rise of ‘child criminals’ actually reveals that British adults have lost the plot.
Is Britain in the grip of a hidden crimewave? Are thousands of crimes being committed each year by feral youths, which the police know about but are powerless to prevent? Is Britain being stalked by troublemaking toddlers, committing vandalism with no comeuppance for their ‘crimes’ because of their tender age?
In a word, no. Though you’d never know that by reading yesterday’s hysterical news reports. ‘As many as 3,000 criminals, including rapists, robbers and burglars, escaped punishment last year because they were too young to be prosecuted’, declared the Daily Mail. The paper published the results of a pretty shameless trawling exercise, having placed Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to police forces around Britain about underage crime. It managed to dredge up various accounts of childish ‘criminal’ activity, including a ‘rape’ in Levenmouth committed by two eight-year-old boys, a ‘kidnapping’ in Rochdale also carried out by an eight-year-old, and a ‘spate of vandalism’ conducted by a three-year-old boy and four-year-old girl.
The Mail received responses to its FOI request from 30 out of 52 police forces, discovering that ‘1,605 crimes were blamed on someone aged under 10 in the last financial year’. Guestimating how many crimes might have been committed by kids in those parts of Britain policed by the 22 forces that did not respond to its requests, it came up with a total of 3,000 offences. And rather than caution its readers that these figures only cover accusations of a crime, rather than guilt having been proven, the Mail implies its findings could be the tip of the iceberg: ‘Many police forces do not even record crimes where they believe youngsters under 10 have been responsible.’
The Mail’s investigation begs questions rather than providing answers. For example, what was the nature of the ‘spate of vandalism’ the two toddlers undertook? Can an eight-year-old really knowingly carry out a kidnapping, or a rape? How do these figures compare with previous years? And if the accusations had been taken further, how many would have been proven to be true? Furthermore, it is striking how all alleged crimes are lumped together to produce a total sum of 3,000 ‘criminal acts’, indiscriminately counting vandalism (kicking in a garden fence perhaps?) alongside much more serious acts of alleged kidnapping and rape.
What is behind the Mail’s fishing exercise? And hasn’t it simply found the results it wanted to find? As its news report says, today there is ‘increasing concern at violence involving children’. It quotes Conservative MP Philip Davies, who claims that criminals are becoming more ‘precocious’ and says policemen have told him that they are increasingly concerned about younger criminals. Davies argues in favour of lowering the age of criminal responsibility and hauling more children before adult courts: ‘People take the view that if they are old enough to commit the crime, they are old enough to take responsibility.’
Whether ‘people’ really hold such views is highly questionable. If they had the power to do so, would a jury really convict a three-year-old for vandalism? It seems highly unlikely. And can an eight-year-old child, who has not even reached puberty, really be accused of committing an act of rape on a par with an adult rapist? In claiming that children as young as eight are capable of consciously committing the crime of rape, the Mail, Philip Davies and police spokespeople are actually diminishing the abhorrent nature of rape, which is carried out by a conscious adult who is fully aware of the morally repugnant nature of his actions.
Yet Davies is not alone in believing that children are capable of committing adult crimes. Since the killing of Jamie Bulger by the 10-year-old boys Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in 1993, the age at which children are seen to be morally culpable has been spiralling downwards. Before the killing of Bulger, British law presumed children under 14 were doli incapax – ‘incapable of crime’ – based on the assumption that they are incapable of making moral decisions in the same way that an adult can. Following the Bulger case, doli incapax was increasingly called into question and it was eventually scrapped in the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998: now, anyone aged 10 and over is deemed to be criminally responsible in the eyes of the law. Judging from the Daily Mail report, it seems that even this tender age is not low enough for some campaigners. They want three-, four- and five-year-olds brought before judges and held up as ‘criminals’.
But that would be insane. A civilised society should draw a clear line between the actions of children, who are still undergoing the process of being socialised to become mature citizens, and the actions of adults who are capable of rationally deciding how to act. Blurring this line not only criminalises wayward children who actually need society’s help and sympathy; it also calls into question the nature of adulthood itself, by implying that everyone from a three-year-old to a 33-year-old is on a moral and intellectual par.
That so-called childhood crime has become such a big issue speaks to a society which is no longer confident of its ability to socialise children and make them into responsible adults, and which no longer knows where the moral boundaries lie. Incapable of understanding or inspiring our children, we instead treat their behaviour as alien, as criminal, as something that the police must take responsibility for and punish. The fraying of the old adult-child relationship, and of the natural socialisation of youth, is giving rise to a view of children as out of control and in need of a criminal record. In truth, it is adults who are losing the plot, not kids.
No matter how precocious he might be, a three-year-old cannot commit the crime of vandalism any more than an eight-year-old can be a rapist. These are children, incapable of making adult judgements about what is right and wrong. A society which views the smashing of a window by a toddler as a ‘crime’ is a society which has lost its moral bearings.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.