Singapore

Criminal responsibility: Experts back plan to raise minimum age

Social workers, lawyers say younger children do not have the capacity to understand their actions and the consequences

Social workers and lawyers have welcomed the proposal to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from the age of seven to 10.

They say that younger children often do not have the intellectual capacity to fully understand or control their actions or to fully comprehend the consequences.

This is backed up by science, said Ms Lena Teo, deputy director of therapy and mental wellness at Care Singapore, which helps at-risk youth.

She noted that a child's prefrontal cortex in the brain, which controls high-level cognitive functions such as decision-making and impulse control, is not fully formed until the late teenage years.

And throwing children into the criminal justice system at such a young age, often for petty crimes like shoplifting, may do them more harm than good.

Lawyer Amolat Singh said: "If you throw the book at them (put them through the criminal justice system), they may be scared stiff and this may result in more psychological harm."

If you throw the book at them (put them through the criminal justice system), they may be scared stiff and this may result in more psychological harm. Lawyer Amolat Singh

Social workers noted that research has found that the younger the age at which a child enters the criminal justice system, the more likely he is to re-offend.

On Sunday, it was announced that the Penal Code Review Committee proposed to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from the current age of seven to 10.

The panel also recommended that children aged above 10 and under 12, who do not have the maturity or understanding to judge the nature and consequences of their conduct, should continue to not be held criminally liable.

In lieu of putting these young children through the criminal justice system, the committee is suggesting dealing with them through a system that involves counselling, treatment or other programmes under a non-criminal framework.

No further details of this new system are available yet, said the Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman.

The committee also noted that the current minimum age of seven is deemed too low by international standards.

For England and Hong Kong, the minimum age is 10. It is 14 years in Japan and South Korea. And the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Children says an internationally acceptable minimum age should be 12.

In proposing to raise the age limit, the committee highlighted that very few children under the age of 10 were caught for getting into trouble with the law.

COURT & CRIME