What is the right age
When I reflect on the achievements of Include Youth over the 16 ¾ years that I have been its Director I feel so very proud. The impact of our organisation, consistency of our message and ability to work with and for some of society's most unpopular children – those involved with crime – means I have often found myself challenged and pilloried. But we have maintained our course because we keep the rights of children at the core of our work.
Over the years I have learnt to curb my natural impatience and take the long view, appreciating the need to work together and build constituencies of support. It could be argued that there are more important things for a children's rights organisation to be doing during these challenging times than campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility but I can't think of a better time.
We know that children and young people who live with poverty; the legacy of the Conflict; neglect and abuse; family misuse of drugs and alcohol; domestic violence or have poor educational outcomes are more likely become involved in risk-taking behaviour. Yet we choose to respond to these circumstances by giving out a criminal record; the label of a 'criminal identity' from the age of 10 which is ridiculously young. I am baffled as to why our society chooses to criminalise this small group of young people rather than invest in ensuring that they, their families and communities have the resources to address any issues in a meaningful and sustained way.
A child is less likely to ever offend in the first place and certainly from offending again if they and their parents are supported to become active citizens, in turn communities will be safer. There is little need to force people to engage in interventions and universal services and every need to support them. All the evidence shows that under these conditions outcomes are both positive and long-term.
So what is the right age of criminal responsibility? The campaign we are launching is asking for 12 to be considered in line with the recommendation in the Youth Justice Review and minimum standards as outlined by the UN Committee in their general comment.
For me this raises the following questions: Should Northern Ireland be aiming for minimum standards or have aspirations for its children which are higher than that? We can and should do better for our children and believe that once we have achieved the age of 12 we should as a society begin to implement the next stage of the recommendation which is work towards raising it to 14. As I have grown older I have learnt to be more pragmatic by trying to gain this crucial change one achievable step at a time.
As a society we would rather give a primary school-aged child a criminal record than support them to achieve in education, help their parents build a safer environment and overcome some of the disadvantages that they find themselves in.
I am so please that Include Youth is launching the Raise the Age. It goes to the very essence of childhood; it's about how a society defines the limits of being a child which should not be about their behaviour. Raising the age of criminal responsibility in line with guidance from international standards as well as the recommendation from the Independent Review into Youth Justice here is surely in keeping with our collective responsibility to our children. I am bewildered that in spite of the overwhelming evidence in favour of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 our politicians are unable to engage in a reasonable debate.
In Northern Ireland to date no 10 or 11 year old has been convicted of a serious crime, but if that very unlikely and unfortunate situation were to occur they would be held to account for their actions. If a child is considered to be a risk to themselves or others it would be negligent to suggest that they are not held securely regardless of their age, in a way that ensures they recognise the impact of their behaviour and decreases the likelihood of reoccurrence. You do not need a low age of criminal responsibility to do this.
It is deeply concerning that in the 21st century Northern Ireland has one of the lowest age of criminal responsibility of anywhere in the developed world. We must always remember that a child is always a child regardless of their behaviour and must be treated as such.
Follow the campaign on Twitter @raisetheageni