THE age at which children should be held responsible for a crime should be raised from 10 to as high as 16, the state's chief advocate for young people has suggested to a government inquiry into juvenile laws.
Australia already has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world - drawing frequent criticism from the United Nations - though ages vary from six in some parts of the United States to 18 in Luxembourg and Colombia.
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But at least one NSW mayor, whose constituents are fed up with youth crime, has told the same government review that eight-year-olds and even younger children should be made criminally responsible.
However, the NSW Commissioner for Children and Young People, Megan Mitchell, said the age needed to be ''initially [lifted] to the age of 12 and with a later decision to raise it further to a point between 14 and 16''. She said studies had shown children as young as 10 often knew right from wrong, but might lack the ability to act accordingly because of peer pressure, immaturity or their developing brains.
More than 45,000 ''criminal incidents'' involving children under 14 have been recorded in NSW in the past decade. Last year, 450 youths were charged with criminal offences.
Research by the British academic Catherine Elliott suggested the English and Australian systems focus too much on a child's moral awareness rather than their autonomy to choose. Ms Mitchell said: ''A kid will do almost anything to maintain peer relations even if they are engaging in antisocial or criminal behaviour … They could very well realise it is wrong, but the pleasure-seeking and the immediate reward-seeking responses in the brain outweigh that thinking.''
But the mayor of Wentworth Shire Council, near Mildura and the Victorian border, says children of ''eight and below'' should be responsible for their crimes, and young people from 16 should be dealt with as adults. Her submission to the government review appeals for a ''a line in the sand''.
Her shire ranks 11th of 141 council areas for crimes per capita, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. In 2010, its juveniles accounted for half of the 20 break-and-enter offences in which the offenders were caught, while half of the 38 people caught for malicious property damage were under 18.
Five residents from the shire's town of Dareton, with a population of about 600, have written to the review, one telling of 13 break-ins among the 22 homes in her street. Jeanette and Ron Stephens had their house trashed, though nothing was stolen. ''If my father was alive,'' Mrs Stephens said, ''he would give them a good thrashing, then give them a cuddle and send them on their way. But you can't do that any more.''
The Law Society wants the age of criminal responsibility raised to 13.
The Youth Justice Coalition, a network of youth workers, children's lawyers and academics, suggests 14 is the appropriate age. Last month the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, said she wanted the ''absolute minimum'' to be 12 around the world.
However, the government child welfare agency, NSW Community Services, wants the common law principle of Doli Incapax - that children aged 10 to 13 can only be prosecuted if they knew what they did was seriously wrong - enshrined in law. The Bar Association and NSW Police want no change.
The 1993 kidnap and murder of British toddler James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys has been a prominent case in the debate. Ireland and Scotland recently raised the age of criminal responsibility from seven and eight respectively to 12. In Switzerland, there has been a discussion about raising it from seven to 10, while England and Wales rejected any change from 10 - but dropped the Doli Incapax doctrine.
Associate Professor Thomas Croft, from the Law School at Sydney University, said a global standard of 12 was starting to emerge, and bringing a 10-year-old before the court would do ''more harm than good''.
Back in Wentworth Shire, Daryl Wescombe's home was trashed. Burglaries often resumed as soon as juveniles were released, he said. ''Jail is not the answer, but allowing these kids back on the streets to reoffend is not either. How many chances to rehabilitate do these kids get?''
THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
- In 2010, more than 450 children under 14 were charged with criminal offences in NSW, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research says.
- Under-14s account for 5 per cent of children before courts.
- Police suspect under-14s involved in more than 45,000 criminal incidents between 2000-01 and 2009-10.
- Many are ''diverted'' with a warning, caution or youth justice conference.
- A month ago, a 13-year-old girl driving her mother's car led police on a chase through Blackett. In January, four boys from the Hunter, aged 11, 12, 13 and 15, were charged over the 2am armed robbery of a service station.