If a 12-year-old is accused of killing someone in New Zealand, they are headed to court. 

Even if their childhood has been miserable, and one long punishment for no reason – if they’re found guilty, they’ll be punished again. 

Even though neuro-scientific research says a person that age doesn’t have the brain development to consider the consequences of what they’re doing, are very strongly influenced by peer pressure and their sense of empathy hasn’t fully evolved. 

“These are children, some of whom are still in primary school,” says Dr Enys Delmage, who’s a consultant in Adolescent Forensic Psychiatry for the National Youth Forensic Unit. 

“They really need protection rather than pursuing a criminal justice route for them…. it’s really time New Zealand made that change.”

Amnesty International today launches a campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility, from 10 where it is now, immediately to 12, and then to 14, in line with UN recommendations and along the lines of where most other countries are heading. 

We’ll be talking to Amnesty’s campaigns director in Aotearoa Lisa Woods about what it wants to happen here; and to Delmage about why it should happen. 

Delmage says if we put these kids through the youth justice system, we are hard wiring identity elements which become harder and harder to undo later in life – in other words, they see themselves as criminals and they cement that into their lives. 

Delmage points out turning that around will actually save us, in terms of future generations, quite a bit of money. 

There hasn’t been a reported case of murder or manslaughter by a 10 or 11-year-old since the 1970s.

“But the thing is,” says Woods, “it’s not good law to be having 10 years as the age of criminal responsibility.” 

She says this isn’t about having no consequences for their actions, but they need to be age-appropriate and are going to be effective. 

Woods says the wider problem is that transformation is needed through our welfare, care and justice systems, but while that work is going on the government could take immediate steps to reduce harm – and raising the age of criminal liability is one of them. 

“One of the main reasons we want to see this change is because when you think about brain development of children and young people, there is absolutely overwhelming medical and psychological evidence that children’s brains are still developing,” she says. 

“Particularly the parts that regulate judgement, impulse control, and decision making. Meaning it’s just not fair or just to hold them criminally liable at such a young age.”

The Detail asked the Government for its stance on raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Justice Minister Kiri Allan says it is looking at the issue and taking advice on any potential changes. 
“In April 2019, New Zealand received a recommendation from the United Nations Human Rights Council to increase our minimum age of criminal responsibility. We accepted this recommendation in June 2019, and are due to report back to the United Nations Human Rights Council on New Zealand’s minimum age as part of the Universal Periodic Review in 2023/24.”

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