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We cannot carry on condemning our most vulnerable children to a lifetime of crime

Luxembourg provides a model of how we should treat minors in our criminal justice system, says Chris Daw QC


In Luxembourg the age of criminal responsibility coincides with the age of majority.

The eighteenth birthday of every Luxembourger marks the point of  ‘full legal capacity and full responsibility for the young person’s actions’.

Luxembourg’s law on this subject begins with this simple proposition: The minor who is the perpetrator of criminal offences cannot as a matter of principle be sentenced to a criminal sentence.

We cannot afford the grotesque human and financial costs of our criminalisation of children,

A minor is a child, and a child in Luxembourg is anyone below the age of eighteen. There is no concept of a ‘young offender’ as some form of intermediate stage of criminality between the complete innocence of the very young child and the mature culpability of adulthood.

In Luxembourg, they do not train their children to become entrenched criminals from as young as ten, in the way that we and our American cousins do.

The law has one overriding objective – the protection of the child. This is achieved by means of confidential interventions in closed youth courts with no formal legal procedures or even – in most cases – lawyers at all.

The proceedings never result in the details of the case, let alone the identity of the child, entering the public domain.

Nowhere is the concept of punishment mentioned at all.

Where a child behaves in a way that might – in other nations – result in a criminal sentence, the only options are reprimands, educational assistance programmes, engagement in philanthropic activity to help the community, and in a few extreme cases placement in the security unit of a socio-educational centre.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, sets out universal rights for all children, such as the right to be protected from abusive treatment, the right to an education and the right to family life.

The United Kingdom is a signatory but we consign our children to the formal criminal justice system with wilful disregard for the Convention’s most fundamental principles.

I am in no doubt that we in Britain routinely breach the UN Convention in our criminal justice systems, day in day out.

It is one of the great and largely hidden scandals of modern times.

Luxembourg is a small and sophisticated country, with high levels of income, education and social welfare provision. Perhaps they can afford to give their children greater legal protections, higher standards of welfare and more intensive intervention than a large and diverse country like Britain? I am sure there are those who will make that argument.

To them I say this – we cannot carry on as we are, condemning thousands of the most vulnerable children in society to a lifetime of crime, drugs and prison.

We cannot afford the grotesque human and financial costs of our criminalisation of children, and we must not perpetuate the impact it has on the fabric of our society and on our social conscience.

Ten years old is one of the youngest ages of criminal responsibility in the world, never mind in the developed world, despite all our advantages of wealth, education and the rule of law.

Dozens of countries have chosen older ages, including in places not otherwise regarded as bastions of human rights.

The evidence from around the world is overwhelming. The more you invest in children – before, during and after the period when they first break the law – the more likely they will be to never see the inside of a courtroom in later life, let alone a prison cell.

The more you criminalise them, the more crimes they commit.

Extracted from Justice on Trial by Chris Daw, published by Bloomsbury Continuum and out now.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

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